The look of paradise is changing: Rising seas mowing over reefs that were once able to slow and break the swells are starting to swallow Hawaii’s iconic white beaches.

The state has approximately 750 miles of coastline, according to a climate change report released recently by the University of Hawaii Sea Grant Center for Sustainable Coastal Tourism. But 13 miles of beaches have disappeared within the past century.

That has scientists — and the Hawaii Tourism Authority — worried.

In a two-part report published in 2013 and 2014, researchers outlined impacts related to sea level rise, drought, and elevated temperatures in Hawaii.

Kailua Beach

Hawaii climate change reports predict that beaches like this one in Kailua on Oahu will lose shoreline, leaving beach goers with little space to lounge. Eric Pape/Civil Beat


“The first report was more of an academic, theoretical approach on how to deal with the problem,” co-author and NOAA Sea Grant Coastal Programs coordinator Dolan Eversole said.

The second, released just a few weeks ago, attempts to illustrate how the effects of climate change will look on the ground, Eversole said.

Waikiki is particularly vulnerable. A 2008 economic impact report surmised that $2 billion in total visitor expenditures annually would be lost if its beaches were to disappear.

“Since beaches are one of Hawai‘i’s major tourist attractions, the loss of beaches due to sea-level rise and erosion would have a dramatic economic impact on the visitor sector,” the 2013 report states.

And Waikiki isn’t the only beach that’s going to get smaller: Others expected to experience significant erosion within a century include: Mau’umae and Hapuna on the Big Island; Makena State Park and Ho’okipa on Maui; Hulopo’e on Lanai; Pu’ko’o and Halawa on Molokai; Waimanalo,  Ala Moana on Oahu; and Ke’e beach and Poipu Beach Park on Kauai.

According to the report, approximately 90 experts in the field of sea level rise found that it will occur to the tune of 1-3 feet around Hawaii within 85 years.

Hawaii relies heavily on its environment for economic revenue, attracting 8,028,744 visitors in 2012 garnering the state approximately $14.4 billion in revenue, according to the most recent available annual visitor report from the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Of those visitors, almost 90 percent participated in some form of “beach and sun activity,” said a visitor satisfaction and activity report .

A majority of visitors come to Hawaii to enjoy the beach and warm, temperate weather, climate change may not only degrade coastlines, but also produces droughts in some areas and heavier rainfall in others.

Tourism isn’t the only industry that will be affected by climate change. The Sea Grant reports say that increases in the ocean’s temperature could affect the feeding habits and migration patterns of big-eye tuna, with catches expected to decrease by as much as 27 percent by 2100.

Losing it Inch by Inch

Dr. Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawaii at Manoa estimates that ocean levels will rise by a little less than an inch a year in Hawaii. While that may seem minor at first, over time the impacts on Hawaii’s environment and, by extension, the tourism industry, could be great.

Higher ocean levels could create more storm surges which could threaten water lines, roads and a majority of the state’s hotels, which are situated along the coast. Linda Cox, a co-author of the report, said that damages from rising sea levels would be the most economically harmful.

“My idea is that the coastline infrastructure will be the biggest challenge due to the expense associated with moving or altering it,” said Cox, researcher with College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at UH.

The effects of rising ocean levels can already be seen on Oahu, said Cox.

“We already have major issues in coastal areas — look at Hanalei  and the North Shore of Oahu. When major storm events occur, these communities struggle to keep roads open, necessities in stock and people aware of the action to take,” Cox said.

Also addressed in the report were rising air temperatures that could not only stress the human population but the native flora and fauna.

The Hawaiian silversword (ahinahina), which grows at the higher elevations of Haleakala, has been declining over the last 20 years as temperatures in Hawaii increase. And native bird species such as the Hawaiian honeycreepers, who thrive in cooler, high elevation forests, may be more exposed to mosquitos carrying malaria that could migrate into warmed-up high-elevation forests.

Hotter temperatures are also expected to make visitors more uncomfortable and more likely to retreat to air conditioned areas, which would ultimately drive up energy consumption.

So What’s Being Done?

“We believe it’s important to be informed about Hawaii’s environment as it relates to tourism. We will use this study to help guide us in how we address our environmental initiatives,” said Mike McCartney, Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO and president.

This year, the Hawaii Tourism Authority provided $1 million in funding for several environmental initiatives through their Natural Resources Community-Based Program.

Some of the programs supported by HTA include, Ko’olau Mountains Watershed Partnership and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, both of which focus on education and outreach as well as community service in the form of beach cleanups and park improvements.

Hawaii Rep. Chris Lee said the state is trying to come up with ways to adapt to climate change, but specific plans are still in the works.

“Evaluations are beginning and in the next couple of years the science will be aggregated along with community input and plans will be developed after that,” Lee said, “I’d like to see actionable plans within two to three years’ time.”

The plans, of course, will then have to secure funding. Meanwhile, the scientific evidence behind climate change projections continues to be compiled and presented, a repetitive tug on the coattails of policy-makers.

“In the case of Waikiki, we’re to assess the localized impact of what climate change will look like,” Lee said, “Do we harden the shoreline, let the beach go, try to replenish it, or retreat?”

Waikiki Beach won’t disappear overnight and because climate change isn’t an instantaneous, catastrophic event, it can be hard to rally support for immediate action.

The answer depends partly on the expense. Would it simply cost too much to save Waikiki?

Like everything to do with climate change, time will tell.

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