As the IUCN World Conservation Congress continues it’s meeting in Honolulu, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on one of its major themes: climate change.
The year 2014 was a record-setting warm year. 2015 beat that by 20 percent, and so far, 2016 is on pace to set yet another new record. The global warming we are witnessing has no historical precedent, and human health and safety are at risk. Without public service announcements to improve awareness, Hawaii communities and ecosystems will be on the losing end of climate change.
What does climate change look like in Hawaii? The short answer is that it looks like the 2015/2016 El Niño.
Research conducted at the University of Hawaii Manoa and partnering institutions that was published in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change shows that as we move into a warmer world, we are likely to experience more El Niño events – and they will be stronger.
El Niño occurs when Pacific trade winds fail, and a body of warm water, normally located in the western tropical Pacific spreads to the east. This water releases its heat to the atmosphere and raises the air and sea surface temperature above normal in the central and eastern tropical Pacific.
As the world climate continues to change, raising sea levels and heating the air and ocean temperature, El Niños are going to become more frequent, more dangerous, and more destructive to Hawaiian ecosystems. Here are the dangerous weather and ocean conditions that accompany El Niño, and that grow worse with continued global warming.
Drought — Last year, Hawaii experienced nine months of below-average rainfall, amplifying a statewide trend of overall drying. Data indicate that in recent decades there has been a 6 percent decrease in the amount of rain that falls each year. Rain is Hawaii’s only source of freshwater and is essential to life in the islands. It is used to grow food, in manufacturing, for daily household activities, in businesses throughout the state, and of course for drinking.
A long-term decrease in rainfall reduces aquifers, where drinking water in Hawaii comes from, and during El Niño drought, reduces capacity to meet the shortage. Reduced rainfall also impacts ecosystems in rivers and streams, and threatens plant and animal communities in watersheds.
Extreme Rainfall — Worldwide, the incidence of extreme rainfall has increased 12 percent. The El Niño of 2015/2016 brought 11 days of record-setting rainfall to Honolulu causing flash floods, impassable roads and shuttered businesses in many neighborhoods. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, in August 2015, the Honolulu Airport’s monthly total of 7.63 inches (19.38 cm) of rain was 1,363 percent of average rainfall and more than double the previous August record of 3.74 inches (9.5 cm) set in 2004.
Intense rainfall in low-lying communities is especially dangerous. Dramatic flooding, stalled traffic, and damaged buildings, can make entire neighborhoods inaccessible, potentially isolating the young, elderly, and ill from caregivers, medical supplies, food, and water. Extreme rainfall does not make up for the prolonged drought of El Niño years, as most of it runs directly into the sea.
Failure of the Trade Winds — Strong El Niño years are characterized by a general failure of the trade winds. On hot days this can promote heat wave conditions, and because most architecture in Hawaii is designed to take advantage of trade winds, apartments and other urban living spaces hold dead air that quickly heats to dangerous levels. Overall, because the trade winds provide a critical component of our rain, a lack of trade winds promotes drought and drying that stresses ecosystems, damages agriculture, and threatens freshwater supplies.
Heat Waves — Worldwide, record hot days now outnumber record cold days by a factor of 12 to 1. These conditions set the stage for heat waves, and scientists have predicted that by mid century extremely high temperatures observed once in 20 years will occur every two to four years. The trend of increasing heat waves is more pronounced in Hawaii during the summer months at the beginning of a strong El Niño.
In 2015, the average temperature at the Honolulu Airport was 1.2 degrees above normal, and there were 25 record-setting warm days yet only four record setting cold days. Hot summer days generally peak in the period August – October and can lead to sweltering heat that drives people to run their air conditioning at home all night long. This puts unusual stress on the ability of utility companies to supply enough electricity to meet the high demand, and in 2014 and 2015 the Hawaiian Electric Co. issued public warnings requesting homeowners to turn off their air conditioning at night.
This excessive demand for electricity can lead to a blackout, a dangerous situation where there is no electricity available. These are exactly the conditions that have caused fatalities in other urban areas around the world during a heat wave. It has been estimated that more than 140,000 people have died in heat waves since 2000. The very old, the very young, and those who are ill are highly vulnerable to heat-related stress and during a blackout the lack of air conditioning in tall buildings, hospitals, schools and other such locations, as well as the lack of electricity for the police and fire departments, can produce potentially deadly situations. Hawaii should plan for these conditions, as in a warmer world with stronger El Niños, heat waves are increasingly likely to occur.
Active Hurricane Seasons — There is a positive correlation between years with active hurricane seasons and strong El Niño’s. In 2015, the North Central Pacific where Hawaii is located, had 15 tropical cyclones. In a typical year the average is only four to five, and the previous record high was in 1992 and 1994 when there were 11 storms in both years. Research at UH Manoa predicts that there will be more frequent tropical cyclones in the waters near Hawaii.
Global warming is causing certain changes to hurricanes. Hurricanes are becoming more violent. They are larger, with higher wind speeds, and they produce more rainfall. Research has shown that, worldwide, the region of maximum winds associated with tropical cyclones is shifting toward the poles. This is alarming news for Hawaii since these storms have historically passed to the south of Hawaii. Should they migrate to the north, the Hawaiian Islands are likely to experience increased exposure to their devastating consequences, especially as they are associated with strong El Niño years.
Large Winter Waves — Every winter Hawaii is exposed to large ocean waves that approach from the north and northwest. These are produced by storms in the North Pacific Ocean that stir the water and send these large waves in all directions. During strong El Niño years these storms are more powerful than usual and thus the waves they produce are typically the highest on record.
These waves cause all kinds of damage to the shorelines they hit. They erode coastlines and beaches, undermine roads and seawalls, flood homes and buildings, and snarl traffic when they run-up onto the pavement and block traffic. These waves will cause increasing amounts of damage and mayhem as sea level continues to rise throughout the 21st century. Coastal landowners and public agencies should prepare for these problems to grow worse in time, and to be especially pronounced during El Niño years.
High Ocean Temperatures and Coral Bleaching — Ocean temperatures around Hawaii are typically cooler than in other tropical areas. This is because Hawaii is located along the northern edge of the tropics, we generally have strong trade winds to encourage water circulation, and cloudy conditions all help to keep the water temperature in a comfortable range for coral reefs. But during El Niño years, the sea surface temperature increases by several degrees. Combined with a breakdown in the trade winds, this can lead to conditions that cause coral bleaching – a dangerous condition for corals that can cause them to die.
Hawaii does not experience bleaching often. But the powerful El Niños of 1998-99 and 2015-16 caused coral bleaching throughout the state, and into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as well. Bleaching does not immediately spell disaster for a reef, but if stressful conditions related to high water temperatures persist for months, it does typically result in the death of a coral.
Humans place stress on coral reefs, which can compound the effects of El Niño and bleaching. Pollution, overfishing, and physical contact with coral all lead to damaged ecosystems which are thereafter more vulnerable to the negative effects of high water temperatures. If we hope for coral reefs to survive future strong El Niño events, it makes sense to remove the stresses we place on them from our activities in adjacent watersheds and coastal waters.
These seven types of weather and ocean conditions can be expected to return to Hawaii with increasing frequency and intensity as the world warms. All the while, around the world and in Hawaii, sea level rise, warming air temperature and ocean acidification continue to increase. These create an insidious backdrop that amplifies the dangerous El Niño events in the ocean, along the coastline and throughout the watersheds.
Because the public is not aware of these complex issues, and does not understand how they are interrelated, efforts to adapt to climate change that would increase health and safety are less effective. Public service announcements can help to solve this problem.
PSAs helped reduce smoking, they have helped increase hurricane preparedness and they have been important in reducing domestic violence. Hawaii state government should step up to the plate, and issue PSAs to educate the public about the many issues related to climate change and what it looks like in Hawaii.
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