Climate change

Climate sceptic to study HK's rising sea levels

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 April, 2011, 12:00am

A leading ocean scientist and critic of the UN climate change panel about the danger of rising sea levels has been hired to study how they might affect Hong Kong.

But, before carrying out the study, Swedish ocean scientist Nils-Axel Morner says any danger is likely to be exaggerated.

In co-operation with the Chinese University, he will examine how the city's sea levels have been changing and assess its potential impact.

'It will be very interesting to study Hong Kong because there are many things close to the sea. If the sea level rose here, it would have disastrous effects,' Morner said during a visit for meetings and a seminar at the university.

But he personally does not believe it is going to happen.

According to the Hong Kong Observatory, 56 years of tide gauge records in the Victoria Harbour since 1954 show a clear rise of the mean sea level. It rose rapidly between 1990 and 1999, and declined moderately afterwards. On average, the sea level in the harbour has risen at a rate of 2.6mm per year in the period.

Morner, formerly a professor at Stockholm University, is known for his strong opposition to the view of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the sea level is rising because of global warming.

The research project will be led by Professor Zhang Yuanzhi, of the Chinese University's Institute of Space and Earth Information Science.

Zhang said the study was necessary because a rise in sea level would cause coastal erosion and flooding, drastically reducing the land area and resulting in a smaller ecological zone and a change of ecosystems.

He said the team was processing data and would draft a proposal by August. Details including where the money will come from for the project have yet to be decided. Zhang said he was looking at sources of funds but 'we don't know yet who or which one'.

The panel, in its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, had said that the maximum rise in sea level would be in the region of 59cm. It has warned this would be enough to make the Maldives and Tuvalu uninhabitable.

It would also threaten all low-lying coastal areas and infrastructure in Hong Kong including land reclamations, cross-harbour tunnels, drainage services and water supplies.

But Morner describes such predictions as 'the greatest lie ever told', a reference to the title of a booklet he published in 2007 detailing his observations that sea levels have always risen and fallen in the past 300 years, without any significant trend.

'The sea level hasn't risen in 50 years,' he said. 'The IPCC's claims were all based on computer model predictions. Mine were based on going into the field to observe what is actually happening in the real world.'

Morner, president of the International Union for Quaternary Research Commission on Sea Level Change from 1999 to 2003, led a team to the Maldives and found that the sea had not risen for half a century.

'We should step back and evaluate the facts. And I have quite serious facts from observation,' he said. 'It is my responsibility, as a scientist, to say there is something wrong with the IPCC.'

Some have criticised his work as consisting of indirect measurements in just a few locations which revealed nothing about recent changes in sea level while others have tried to undermine his work by linking it to his ability to find water and metal using a divining rod, at which he says he is 'pretty good'.

'These people answer my scientific research not by attacking my reasons but me as a person. That's very nice and reasonable,' Morner said.

He counters by accusing the UN panel's scientists of selecting only statistics that favour their stance. Their theory is that as temperatures rise, the sea will absorb heat from the atmosphere, causing it to expand and levels to rise.

Despite Morner's well-known stance against what are now mainstream views, University of Hong Kong earth scientist Wyss Yim Wai-shu believed Morner's upcoming study on Hong Kong would not be coloured by his opinion. One pitfall of the Observatory's model was its lack of tide gauges - it only has one - so it might have overlooked regional differences. 'But it is still not clear enough how sea level has been changing in the long run. We don't understand enough at the moment and that's why we need to study more into it,' Yim said.

Rising tides

The Hong Kong Observatory says in 56 years, water in Victoria Harbour has risen at an annual average of: 2.6mm