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Freak tides leave much of Funafuti underwater

February 21, 2004

Freak tides have covered swathes of Tuvalu, with the government blaming global warming for the phenomenon it says may one day see the South Pacific atoll disappear beneath the waves for good.

The spring or king tides occur several times a year depending on the positions of the sun and moon and produce the bizarre effect of sea-water welling up inland creating lakes.

The tide reached its peak just before sunset on Friday local time.

The tides may not present an immediate danger to life but are damaging crop production and raising fears the islands may eventually have to be evacuated.

But scientists and politicians are divided over whether the Polynesian atoll nation that lies some 3,400 kilometres north-east of Australia, is sinking or whether the sea is rising.

Tuvalu has long warned it is at risk from a possible rise in sea levels perhaps caused by global warming.

During negotiations on the Kyoto Convention on global warming a decade ago, then prime minister Bikenibeu Paeniu warned "the world's first victims of climate change" would be the 11,500 Tuvaluans.

The jury is still out on the issue.

A recent scientific study showed sea levels were not rising.

One theory is that the land is subsiding because of improper land use and population pressure.

But Prime Minister Saufatu Sopo'aga said he had no doubt that the high tides hitting Tuvalu were due to man-made global warming.

"The evidence is there, and our nation is suffering because of it, what else can we say?" Mr Sopo'aga told AFP earlier.

"We do not need further scientific research into this global phenomena on sea-level rising; it is already there."

At the Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute here the water was lapping up to the country's oldest building, believed around about 150 years old, a London Missionary Society classroom.

Institute head Jonathan Gayton told AFP he believed the flooding in the area may be a relatively recent phenomenon.

"Why would the missionaries have built the school in a place that floods every spring tide?... I don't know the answer, perhaps Tuvalu is sinking or the sea level is rising."

Mr Gayton said he believed that Tuvalu - 26 square kilometres of land scattered over nine atolls, none of which rises more than 4.5 metres above sea level, was continuing to evolve.

The reef around the island showed signs it was emerging from the sea, while the missionary building suggested the island was sinking.

"I have not got a clue what is happening, the data has not been kept long enough yet to give us an answer," he said.

Government meteorologist Hilia Vavae said the current spring tides had not reached levels that occurred in 2001 but she pointed out that the nearby island of Tepukasavalivili had simply disappeared in 1997.

"You can look down into the water and see the outline of the island," she said.

But she did not know whether it was a natural occurrence or something related to a rise in sea levels.

Like everybody trying to work out what is happening, she laments the lack of data available.

The current tide gauge here is only 10 years old.

Another spring tide is due on Saturday local time.

But for the time being the atoll appears safe: so far in the current round of tides the weather has been calm and the sea has not breached the coastline, as sometimes occurs.

Copyright 2004 Agence France Presse

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