Hawaii Climate Change

Hawaii is the most isolated archipelago in the world—a five-hour flight from the continental U.S. and six hours from Japan. This unique geography presents distinctive challenges when it comes to the impacts of climate change, according to Dr. Charles “Chip” Fletcher, Interim Dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Hawaii is at risk to experience a wide range of effects, from increased wildfires, sea level rise and more flooding, he said. 

The world saw what can happen to the islands this past summer when wildfires ravaged west Maui, turning the town of Lahaina into ashes. The powerful fires were fueled by hot and immensely strong winds, and climate change played an important role in those conditions, Fletcher said. 

This is only part of the equation. Due to Hawaii’s remoteness, the island state is completely dependent on itself for producing fresh drinking water. This happens when rain falls over the mountains and flows into aquifers to reach people’s faucets. Scientists have noticed a long-term trend of the rate of warming at high elevation where these rain clouds form being more rapid than the rate at sea level, Fletcher said. As a result, the islands are facing an expanding drought, especially during the summertime, and El Niño and La Niña seasons. 

Along the shores, there’s a general trend of coastal erosion where the islands are slowly yet surely getting smaller. This threatens private property, especially at-risk and underserved communities, and when residents build sea walls, it causes beach loss as well, Fletcher said. Although the world’s rate of sea level rise is relatively small, about four millimeters a year, Hawaii and other pacific islands will experience up to 20 percent more of the global sea level rise.  

New wetlands are expected to form in Hawaii’s urban areas, such as famous Waikiki, as sea levels rise and create groundwater inundation, according to Fletcher. The large waves that make Hawaii famous for surfing can flood across the coast and into communities. 

But there is hope. If Native Hawaiian cultural practices where people return to living in harmony with the land and sea are restored, and more land is kept undeveloped, Fletcher said progress can be made.