Rethinking Reef Island Stability in Relation to Anthropogenic Sea Level Rise

Haunani H. Kane, Charles H. Fletcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Unprecedented rates of anthropogenic sea level rise (ASLR) and attendant wave-driven flooding and salinization threaten the stability (and habitability) of atoll islands. Thus, there is doubt regarding the continued existence of sovereign atoll nations and unique, place-based indigenous atoll cultures. Evidence that some atoll islands may have originally formed in the latter stages of post-glacial sea level rise (SLR) has been interpreted to mean they will persist under accelerating ASLR. These forecasts are at odds with interpretations that atoll islands will succumb to rising seas. To shed light on conflicting models of island stability, we develop a multitemporal island vulnerability assessment (MIVA) to anticipate island instability and apply it in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) where there is a history of previous research. Using evidence from geological and historical records of island response to changing late Holocene sea level and modern tide, wave, and groundwater observations, we identify thresholds where islands pass from stable to unstable phases due to projected local, relative ASLR. Under the most likely scenario (intermediate-high) where ASLR reaches 1.91 m by 2100, island stability deteriorates by midcentury as historical rates of SLR at RMI increase threefold, and temporary flood events deteriorate potable groundwater and agroforests. In the second half of the century, as ASLR exceeds geological sea level thresholds, permanent island instability will be inevitable with no action. We conclude that these islands are already trending into declining stability due to ASLR as documented by published observations of extreme tides, wave inundation, salinization, and sediment mobilization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020EF001525
JournalEarth's Future
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Holocene
  • Republic of the Marshall Islands
  • atoll
  • coastal vulnerability
  • reef island
  • sea level rise

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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