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Commentary: How melting glaciers affect Indonesia – it's not just rising sea levels

As a maritime nation, Indonesia plays an important role in taking concrete and realistic actions on climate change, says an expert.

Commentary: How melting glaciers affect Indonesia – it's not just rising sea levels

Indonesia's little-known glaciers are melting so fast they could disappear in a decade, a new study says. (Photo: AFP/Handout)

JAKARTA: Scientists, politicians and the people of Iceland recently placed a plaque mourning the loss of Okjokull glacier.

Okjokull is no longer a living glacier because there has been insufficient ice build-up over the years to expand its glacial mass. 

The plaque acknowledges what is happening and what needs to be done in the next 200 years, because all of Iceland’s main glaciers are expected to suffer the same fate.

READ: Commentary: A new hot world and the death of Iceland's 700-year-old glacier


Indonesia has glaciers on the Jayawijaya Mountains in Papua.

The ice-covered peaks have lost 84.9 per cent of their glacial surface since 1988. A study has predicted the remaining glacial area will disappear within ten years.

More alarming for Indonesia, climate change threatens not only its glaciers but also its vast seas, which make up around 70 per cent of the country’s area and are much deeper than the height of Jayawijaya Mountains.

READ: Commentary: As temperatures rise, Indonesia's water-sharing can prevent transboundary haze

A panel of climate scientists under the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC). The report explains the latest understanding of our changing oceans and cryosphere (the cryosphere refers to the components of the Earth that are frozen).

How are the SROCC’s findings relevant to Indonesia?


Scientific findings have revealed the melting of the cryosphere that leads to global sea-level rise is just one of climate change’s many domino effects.

Sea level rise that may submerge small islands happens not only continuously but is also accelerating. (Photo: AFP/SANKA VIDANAGAMA) Small island nations such as the Maldives are particularly concerned about the threat from storm surges and rising sea levels AFP/SANKA VIDANAGAMA

The report underlines that climate change causes the oceans to become warmer and more acidic and to lose oxygen persistently. Sea level rise that may submerge small islands happens not only continuously but is also accelerating.

Extreme climate phenomena such as marine heatwaves are becoming more frequent, intense and long-lasting, particularly in the tropics.

The same is true of extreme El Nino–Southern Oscillation events, which cause droughts and floods in Indonesia.


SROCC contains several important warnings about climate change’s impact on Indonesia as a tropical, archipelagic country.

First, marine biodiversity is at risk. Climate change causes shifts in seasonal rhythms and the geographical ranges of marine species.

READ: Commentary: Climate change in Singapore and what the future brings

Since the 1950s, marine species living in the upper 200m of the sea have been shifting poleward at about 52 km per decade. A similar pattern is happening to seafloor ecosystems.

Considering the high biodiversity of marine species in Indonesia, further research is needed on changes in seasonal rhythms and geographical distributions of marine species in Indonesia.

Second, the report highlights coral reefs as the most sensitive key marine ecosystem compared to seagrass and mangrove ecosystems that are also prevalent in Indonesia.

File photo of mangrove swamps. (Photo: AFP/Raul Arboleda) The mangrove swamps and Pacific inlets around Tumaco, as well as its proxity to coca farmers, have made it an ideal spot for drugs traffickers AFP/Raul Arboleda

As host to the largest seagrass ecosystems in Southeast Asia and 23 per cent of total mangrove forests in the world, this finding is important for Indonesia. Reduced seagrass and mangrove ecosystems may lower the capacity of coastal ecosystems to absorb carbon emissions.

Third, ocean warming reduces Indonesia’s maximum sea catch potential by up to 30 per cent if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising throughout the 21st century. This adds to the burden on a fisheries sector already plagued by overfishing.

Combined effects of warmer and more acidic waters also have negative consequences for fish stocks and calcareous marine organisms (such as pearl oysters and lobsters).


To formulate effective adaptation strategies, we need to understand the interactions of environmental degradation that occurs not only because of climate change.

A classic example is the problem of the rising sea level in Jakarta – it is primarily driven by land subsidence due to groundwater extraction.

READ: Commentary: Jokowi’s curious plan for Indonesia’s new capital

READ: Commentary: The ocean is changing – it’s getting more acidic

The UN report also makes a distinction between ocean and coastal acidification.

Ocean acidification refers to the increase of hydrogen ions in ocean waters due to reaction between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and seawaters. However, Indonesian seas also experience coastal acidification due to local activities such as waste and pollution that further acidify seawater.

Plastic waste in Lampung Bay, Indonesia. (Photo: AFP/PERDIANSYAH) Spoiled paradise: Plastic waste in Lampung Bay, Indonesia AFP/PERDIANSYAH

Local solutions that could regulate the ambient seawater acidity may reduce the impact of ocean and coastal acidification on the local community. These include effective waste management and conservation of seagrass ecosystems.


SROCC is an important scientific input for climate negotiation at the United Nationals Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Spain.

As a maritime nation, Indonesia plays an important role in taking concrete and realistic actions on climate change.

READ: Commentary: Indonesia's disappearing languages - all because of climate change

SROCC shows the benefits of employing ambitious and effective climate adaptation strategies, such as protecting coastal communities, particularly those with large populations, from rising sea level. This protection is in line with sustainable development.

SROCC states that the ocean is largely a victim of climate change, while land is identified as the primary culprit as well as victim of climate change.

File photo of a beach at Anak Krakatau, Indonesia. (Photo: Saifulbahri Ismail)

Warmer, more acidic and deoxygenated oceans have implications for Indonesia’s commitments to protect its biodiversity and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Climate change challenges our commitment to protect marine biodiversity, the capacity of coastal ecosystems to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and the sustainable use of marine resources.

Scientific findings from the SROCC and other UN publications should create momentum to take action that is inclusive and beyond business as usual. Such efforts will be appreciated by future generations.

Intan Suci Nurhati is a scientist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). This article first appeared on the Conversation.

Source: CNA/el


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