Rising seas could spell doom for Orkney islands
By David Leask
ITS beaches are as stunning as any in the Maldives – even if its weather isn't.
Yet if the Orkney island of Sanday is very far from the Indian Ocean idyll, it looks set to share the same fate, as sea levels rise and storms become fiercer and more frequent.
Sanday, like the Maldives, may be "uninhabitable" by the end of the century, a leading climate scientist warned last night. More dramatically, some experts fear the long, low-lying spit of land could split into two or more islands within the lifetimes of its 500 residents.
Sanday, and neighbouring North Ronaldsay, are now seen as so-called bellwether islands. Their low elevation and exposed positions mean they will be among the first places in the western world to face the brunt of global warming, even if the most optimistic predictions come true.
Kevin Anderson, climate change expert and professor at Manchester University, said: "These islands are barometers of the changes we are all going to see if we don't get our carbon emissions under control. What threatens them is a mix of quite small rises in sea level and a jump in the frequency and severity of storms. Storms that used to only occur occasionally will make some of these areas uninhabitable. People on these islands are vulnerable, but they will no doubt get help to relocate. Think, however, of more vulnerable people in poorer parts of the world with nowhere else to go".
Sanday and North Ronaldsay – whose famous seaweed-eating sheep are under threat – have always suffered from the weather. Their sea defences have been breached many times. But storms, locals acknowledge, have been getting tougher and more regular. Sanday has suffered several bouts of flooding that has split one side of the island from another, albeit temporarily. "One day the waters will just stay and there will be more than one Sanday," said one islander.
Liam McArthur, the Liberal Democrat who represents Orkney in the Scottish Parliament, was brought up on Sanday. He admits the island's position is now "precarious".
"There has always been a bit of gallows humour in Sanday," he said. "My parents live in the north end of the island and I have joked we'll need to get two ferries to see them, one to Sanday and another to the new island they will live on. The north end was cut off just two years ago.
"Obviously, we want to be hesitant about apocalyptic forecasts. But there is no doubt that, in a Scottish context, the first impact of climate change is in places like Orkney."
McArthur, however, believes the north isles face more immediate challenges, including depopulation. The numbers on the islands north of the Orkney mainland have held steady for more than two decades, but only thanks to new migrants, many from mainland Scotland and England. New jobs can be hard to come by, he said.
Some islanders are now talking of giving land to newcomers in exchange for helping with engineering work to stave off the effects of climate change.
In North Ronaldsay – which has around 60 inhabitants, down from 500 a century ago – the stone dyke that surrounds the island could be an early victim of global warming. It was built in the 1830s to keep the island's unique seaweed-eating sheep on shore; without it, the sheep would be lost. "It has already been replaced in parts by fencing," said Sam Harcus, who represents the North Isles on Orkney's council. "I think we are eventually going to have to offer people a croft and land in exchange for them giving up a day or two a week to maintain the dyke."
Orkney's internationally important neolithic sites are also at risk, with archaeologists now openly debating how and when they will abandon Skara Brae, the stone age village unearthed, ironically, by huge storms and now precariously nestled behind an eroding sandy beach.
Orkney's council leader, Stephen Hagan, last night described changes in the islands's climate so far as subtle. But he added: "There is nothing we can physically do to stop rising sea levels."
Posted by moss
31st May 2009ce