Atoll Island

Project context

Originally submitted as an ERC Advanced Grant, but now funded by UKRI, the £2.8M ARISE project, led by Professor Gerd Masselink, is a follow-up from the GCRF funded projectPhysical impacts of climate change on coral reef islands
Due to their low-lying nature, coral atoll islands are widely acknowledged to be amongst the most vulnerable environments to climate change. Most of them are predicted to be uninhabitable by the mid-21st century because of sea-level rise. 
However, these forecasts are based on relatively simple hydrodynamic models that consider the islands immobile, whereas, when overwashed during storms, the islands can vertically accrete due to sediment deposition. Repeated overwash can enable atoll islands to keep up with rising sea level. 
This potentially provides opportunities for island communities to prolong habitability through innovative adaptation strategies, instead of having to construct expensive coastal defences or traumatically relocate to regions with no flood risk.
Atoll Island
Atoll Island
Atoll Island


It is generally accepted that overwash is key to atoll island survival, but further research is required to increase our quantitative understanding of overwash processes and transform the enhanced insights into practice by developing management tools. 
The overarching aim of this project is therefore to ‘revolutionise our capability to model the physical impacts of sea-level rise on atoll islands to aid in the formulation, development and implementation of transformative climate-change adaptation strategies for atoll island communities’. 

Atoll islands

Atoll islands are wave-built accumulations of gravel or sand that sit on top of coral reef platforms. The island sediments are derived from the breakdown of calcium-carbonate secreting organisms, such as corals, bivalves, gastropods and foraminifera, that dwell on the adjacent reef systems. 
The existence of these islands is intrinsically linked to the reef ecology, as they rely on the reef’s production of sediments; however, the formation, maintenance and dynamics of atoll islands are primarily governed by physical processes involving water level, waves and currents. 
Key hydrodynamic processes include: 
Atoll Island
1. Breaking of ocean waves at the seaward edge of the platform.
2. Loss in wave energy as waves continue to break in the shallow water across the reef platform.
3. Generation of low long-period waves and wave set-up across the reef platform.
4. The combined wave motion being released at the island beach as wave runup. 
5. If the waves are very energetic and the water level is high, wave runup may extend to the top of the island and flood the island by overwash.
Sediment produced by the reef ecosystem is transported by these complex hydrodynamic processes from the reef edge, to the reef platform and the beach, and onto the island in case of overwash, ultimately leading to island change.


This ARISE project comprises three main types of activities – data collection and analysis, numerical model development, model application for management – which are arranged through eight interlinking Work Packages. New knowledge and understanding of atoll island response to SLR will be obtained using unprecedented laboratory experiments (in the Delta Flume, Netherlands) and field measurements (in the Maldives and Pacific). 
The unique data sets acquired will be used to develop, calibrate and validate hydro- and morphodynamic numerical models (using the XBeach suite of models). These models will then be deployed in an innovative modelling framework to evaluate the role of the various processes involved in the island response. Finally, the modelling tools will be deployed to enable atoll island communities to implement adaptation strategies that maximise opportunities for continued habitation.

Data Collection
Current Meter
Pressure sensor

Academic and technical staff

Research students

  • Aitana Gea Neuhaus

    Aitana Gea Neuhaus

    Sediment providence and pathways
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    Floortje Roelvink

    Adaptation modelling
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    Ashley Holsclaw

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    Aslam Waleed

    Atoll island vulnerability and adaptation strategies
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    Danny Shadrech

    Overwash dynamics
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    Nidia Tobon

    Atoll island hydrology


Ainési, B, Masselink, G. and Kench, P., submitted. Estimating Sediment Delivery Rates to Atoll Islands. Geophysical Research Letters.
Roelvink, F., Masselink, G., Stokes, C. and McCall, R., in prep. Climate adaptation for natural atoll islands: the long-term morphological response of coral islands to sea level rise and hazard mitigation strategies. Earth’s Future.

Winter, G., Storlazzi, C., Vitousek, S., van Dongeren, A., McCall, R., Hoeke, R., Skirving, W., Marra, J., Reyns, J., Aucan, J., Widlansky, M., Becker, J., Perry, C., Masselink, G., Lowe, R., Ford, M., Pomeroy, A., Mendez, F., Rueda, A. and Wandres, M., 2020. Steps to Develop Early Warning systems and future scenarios of storm wave-driven flooding along coral reef-lined coasts. Frontiers in Marine Science, 31.
Atoll Island
GPS Survey
Atoll Island