We talk with Dr Javier Leon about rising sea levels
What do rising sea levels and worms have in common?
Dr Javier Leon says the short answers to the world’s changing climate can be found in two places each of us has immediate access to: worms, and a pen!
A geographer who spends his time researching and teaching at university, Javier was first drawn to this line of work because of his love for surfing.
We get to the worms in a little bit, but to start, Dr Leon took some time from his day to share insight on his research around rising sea levels throughout the South Pacific.
“Basically locals reached out to us because some of these island were disappearing - like full on disappearing. As in, they’re not there anymore.”
He said most of these islands were offshore spots where people tend to go fishing or camping. Special places for childhood memories and adventure, but not all of them.
“One of the first guys that actually reached out to us was an Aussie guy who surfs a lot,” Dr Leon said,
“He used to visit this one spot that had really good waves and noticed over the years, like in the mid-90s it was totally gone.
“So we went there and we were literally standing on this reef platform and its fully bare. There was no sign of sand there at all … just dead coral and one fallen tree trunk.
“But we walked, or we swam, to the kind of edge, not the one fronting the waves, and we snorkelled there.
“At around 10 metres deep and you could see the coconut trees underwater and literally sand sheets falling off into the lagoon below.
“So it was strong evidence that we could see sea levels rising and that islands move - eventually it gets pushed out of the reef platform.”
Not all islands are affected by rising sea levels though. Some, Dr Leon said, are affected by wave energy and erosion, while others are actually experiencing a drop in sea level.
“Islands react differently – so it depends on the size and the orientation of the reef platform; the vegetation; the height and size of the island… there are lots of factors that will affect how an island behaves.
“Some other islands will get taller and deeper; some islands will just modify their shape so they become more elongated … it’s not just one story where all the islands are getting washed away.
“One of the places we went to in the Solomon Islands, though, the mangroves were being flooded.
“So women go to those places to collect food and were losing those sites. They were losing their gardens and the most extreme was losing their houses.
“It’s not like they lose their whole island – it’s a slow process. There’s not going to be a BBC documentary on it but if you talk with these people, and they tell you about it, you’ll realise it’s a big issue.”
Dr Leon said a key point towards finding solutions, was to clarify what’s causing the change.
“Most people, including many locals in these regions, tend to think that islands are actually sinking. But that’s not the case, all the time.
“There might be a few cases where islands have sunk – but most cases it is the sea levels are actually rising.”
Now before we jump to the solution, some context: what has all this got to do with climate change and global warning?
“Basically the more we pump out more CO2 and greenhouse gases, the higher capacity for heat to be absorbed by the ocean. And because the ocean is a huge place, it takes longer to get warm, but it also takes longer to cool again.
“So the ocean has been absorbing all of this heat for decades, even if we start cooling the planet, the ocean will take a long time.
“There is no way around it,” Dr Leon said. “Sea levels will rise. Even if we cut down our emissions tomorrow, there’s enough inertia from all the heat that the ocean has absorbed, for sea levels to continue to rise.”
“The thing is, it’s not only that increase in sea level, it’s when its combined with other stuff. We’re also going to get stronger waves and stronger cyclones, so when you combine all that stuff, there’s issues.”
Ok … so, what keeps you hopeful? How do you, as someone who knows and continues to work with the facts, get out of bed with a smile each day?
“My house is 30 metres above the ocean, and I won’t move any lower,” Dr Leon kind of laughed.
“The only things we can do and should be doing is: Number One: Cut emmissions – the first and most important because that’s actually addressing the issue.
“Number two: We need to adapt – so you know, if we know some type of island is going to erode, we shouldn’t build a house on it.
“Or we should build a house on higher stilts.”
Closer to home, or more specifically, as someone who lives on mainland Australia, what does Dr Leon do daily towards reducing CO2 emmissions?
“Wherever I can, I talk about it and I advocate for CO2 emmissions to be cut. And that’s a direct message to the government – so I vote and I vote smartly. That’s my power.
“But in my day to day, I compost … a lot.
“I love composting – and that’s a great way to trap a lot of carbon in the soil. So definitely compost.
“My electricity is mostly solar, I’m not off the grid but I offset so I pay more to offset my energy consumption and I I try to travel less which is a hard thing, outside of COVID_19 restrictions, because I’m Peruvian, because of my career, I travel a lot and I love travelling but I try to travel less.
“Not only aeroplane travelling – car travelling, too. It’s really hard to do that on the Sunny Coast, because everything is 30 minutes away and that’s one thing I miss about living in the cities where you drive less.”
So those are some immediate action steps we can all do, towards reducing CO2 emissions and ultimately, towards cooling the ocean’s waters and cooling our planet.
They’re not so scary or unattainable?
“I’d say voting is more important, or in fact education, knowledge. That’s at the core of what I do, I educate to research and research to educate.
“Because ultimately, what we need is action. If people are better educated and understand what is going on – then they will put more pressure on the government.”
And as for the compost … any tips?
“WORMS! Worms are they best! They don’t stink and they are easy – and you can have them under your sink. Its super easy!”
He said you could have a worm farm, which, while it won’t compost all your waste, you’ll be amazed at how much soil you can create with their help. Just chuck some veggie scraps and fruit scraps in there once in a while … you’ll learn more as you go.
“As with everything in life, I think it’s better to start simple and small. So even if you are only composting the fruit you eat or whatever, that’s better than not doing it!”