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Warming will speed damage to low-lying Pacific isles, study finds

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Low-lying atolls in the Pacific Ocean will likely be inundated by seawater sooner than previously anticipated as the planet warms, a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests.

Researchers studied Midway Atoll and Laysan Island in the Papahanau­mokuakea Marine National Monument for their report, and demonstrate the problems rising sea level pose for seabirds, Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles and other wildlife that live there.

But both places have landforms and coastal features common to many islands in the Pacific, however, and scientists say the findings are also important for people who live in the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and other low-lying Pacific island groups.

Earlier research suggested the atolls would remain above sea level for the next 50 to 150 years, research oceanographer Curt Storlazzi of the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center said in a news release Thursday. But a model accounting for storm wind and wave action suggests rising sea levels will affect the islands sooner.

"By taking wave-driven processes into account, we forecast that many of the atolls will be inundated, contaminating freshwater supplies and thus making the islands uninhabitable, much sooner," Storlazzi said. The study didn’t give specific dates.

The new modeling method forecasts at least twice as much land will be inundated on Midway and Laysan compared with earlier research.

The USGS says the models offer tools to forecast where salt water might damage agricultural land and contaminate groundwater.

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