Is climate disrupting maritime boundaries?

The rules for atolls and reefs in international law are already murky and subject to interpretation. Image by PR HANDOUT IMAGE PHOTO

Climate change is disrupting the shape and presence of coral islands across the Indo-Pacific, creating uncertainties for legal maritime zones and small states, say legal experts.

Atolls and reefs naturally grow and shrink due to complex processes yet to be fully understood.

However global warming is disrupting them further and leading to fresh uncertainties, according to research conducted at the University of Sydney.

Lead author Dr Thomas Fellowes says new technologies and approaches coupled with expanded analysis of coral behaviour may be needed to help dispel some of the precariousness and solidify claims.

“Coral reef islands are the legal basis for many large maritime zones,” he said.

“Hence, continued climate disruptions may have substantial impact not only for small island states but in hotly contested boundary disputes in places like the South China Sea.

“It’s a perfect storm that is bringing instability and uncertainty to what are already difficult boundaries to determine with any great accuracy.”

The rules for atolls and reefs in international law – already murky and subject to interpretation due to their shifting nature – will be under greater stress as sea levels rise and acidification disrupts reef integrity.

John Kidman, Australian Associated Press, 24 September 2022. Full article.

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