Sink or swim? The Maldives may disappear under the sea within the next century.

Maldives Experience That Sinking Feeling

The Maldives--a string of more than 1000 small islands that stretch from the southern tip of India to the equator--may be underwater within the next century, according to a new study. The finding is the latest salvo in a raging debate over whether changes in global sea level will cause the islands to disappear.

In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) p redicted a global sea level rise between 9 and 85 centimeters by 2100. The prediction, based on computer modeling of published studies, blames warming of the planet's oceans (ScienceNOW, 22 January, 2001). Under this scenario, islands such as the Maldives, most of whose land is less than 1 meter above sea level, are destined to disappear.

But not everyone agrees with the dire predictions. Geologist Nils-Axel Mörner of Stockholm University in Sweden argues that IPCC computer models are wrong. In addition, his own fieldwork, published last year, indicates that increased evaporation of the Indian Ocean caused by global warming has actually caused the sea level there to fall 30 centimeters in the past few decades.

Now, oceanographer Philip Woodworth of the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, U.K., challenges Mörner's claims by asserting that a sea level fall is implausible from meteorological and oceanographic perspectives. Woodworth, who reports his study in an upcoming issue of Global and Planetary Change, examined a set of climatic and oceanographic historical records from the Maldives and their vicinity. He studied air and sea surface temperature, wind speed, rainfall trends, and land movements that could lead to sea level drop. Woodworth couldn't find any evidence to support the proposed sea level fall posited by Mörner and concludes that the IPCC's prediction remains the most reliable scenario for to the future of the Maldives.

"It's an excellent case study that brings together an impressive array of information," says oceanographer Mark Merrifield of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. For his part, Mörner maintains that the true fate of the Maldives should be deduced from direct observation and not just from models or historical records. "Our field observations remain fresh and clear," he says. "Others just want to repeat the same old flooding story."

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