Australia: Coral islands at risk of disappearing

A study reveals that over a dozen coral islands in Australia, critical for expanding the country’s maritime jurisdiction, are at significant risk of disappearing due to climate change. Rising sea levels, marine heatwaves, intensified weather systems, and ocean acidification contribute to the precarious fate of these low-lying islands. The study, led by Dr. Tommy Fellowes from the University of Sydney, assessed 56 coral islands, categorizing them from low to very high risk based on factors like susceptibility to inundation, storms, sea-level rise, and coral reef health.

Three islands on Western Australia’s North West Shelf (Scott, Clerke, and Imperieuse reefs) were considered “very high risk,” while 11 islands in the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast faced a high risk. The strategic importance of these islands lies in their role in extending Australia’s maritime jurisdiction, granting rights to the country, including fisheries and resource exploration.

Sea level rise, notably affecting regions where these islands are located, poses the most significant threat. The risk assessments were based on current conditions, but the study emphasizes that climate change-induced factors like marine heatwaves and storms are likely to worsen over time.

The disappearance of these islands raises complex issues in international law regarding the extension of countries’ jurisdiction, impacting rights related to fisheries, resource exploration, and environmental protection. The loss of islands could necessitate a revision of Australia’s laws for determining maritime zones, possibly shifting from measuring from a low-tide mark to using fixed coordinates.

Dr. Frances Anggadi, an expert on rising sea levels and maritime zones, notes that internationally, about 50 countries are supporting a change under UN processes to designate exclusive economic zones based on coordinates rather than the position of the land. This shift could ensure economic rights even if the land has submerged. However, potential border disputes and political sensitivities may complicate the implementation of such changes.

The potential disappearance of these coral islands presents a multifaceted challenge, not just for Australia but for the broader international community. The study underscores the urgency of addressing the impacts of climate change on territorial boundaries and maritime jurisdictions. Here are some key aspects and implications:

  1. Strategic Importance and Resource Rights:
    • The coral islands under threat contribute significantly to Australia’s maritime zones, granting rights to fisheries, resource exploration, and environmental protections.
    • These zones are determined based on the low-tide mark, and the loss of islands could necessitate a reevaluation of the criteria for determining maritime boundaries.
  2. International Legal Complexities:
    • The study raises questions about how international law will grapple with disappearing islands that currently extend the jurisdiction of countries.
    • As countries around the world may face similar challenges, this issue becomes a part of the broader discourse on adapting legal frameworks to climate-induced changes.
  3. UN Processes and Coordination:
    • The suggested shift in UN processes to designate exclusive economic zones based on coordinates rather than land positions reflects a potential adaptation to changing geographical realities.
    • However, this shift requires international coordination and agreement, with about 50 countries already supporting the change. It aims to ensure economic rights persist even if land disappears beneath rising waters.
  4. Political Sensitivities and Border Disputes:
    • Changes to maritime boundaries and jurisdictions involve political interests and sensitivities, making it likely that disputes may arise.
    • Border disputes often revolve around sovereign interests, and disagreements are anticipated, emphasizing the need for diplomatic solutions.
  5. Global Relevance:

As nations grapple with the consequences of climate change, addressing the legal implications of disappearing landmasses becomes a critical aspect of environmental governance. International cooperation, diplomatic negotiations, and adaptations to legal frameworks will be essential to navigate the complexities arising from the loss of islands and the broader impacts of climate change on territorial jurisdictions.

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