Climate change is contributing to a litany of conditions that can make swimming, snorkeling and surfing more dangerous in Hawaii waters — and it’s only expected to get worse in the years ahead, according to scientists, health experts and ocean safety officials.
Lifeguards have already had to relocate their towers multiple times as beach erosion alters the shoreline. Some of that is natural, but some of it is from rising seas, stronger surf and more frequent severe storms.
Emergency responders have started tracking heat-related health problems as trade winds blow less frequently and temperatures continue to break records.
County and state officials are also bracing for bigger populations of jellyfish from warmer waters, more powerful rip currents from higher sea levels, and increased exposure to water-borne diseases from flooding and runoff.
Honolulu Emergency Services Director Jim Howe said the county has long adapted to gradual changes in coastal conditions and weather patterns that affect ocean safety. But in recent years, he has had to refocus planning efforts as climate change has quickened the rate of change and exacerbated problems.
“From our perspective, this is accelerating,” he said. “We’re doing our level best to make sure we’re like a coconut tree in a storm — that we bend with the wind and not break.”
There are 42 lifeguard towers around Oahu, guarding many of the most popular places but far from all of the island’s 179 beaches. It’s a similar story on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.
Lifeguards are changing how they approach ocean safety in light of the changing conditions. That has meant moving towers and becoming more mobile in the near term.
On Oahu’s Windward side, the county has had to move the Kailua Beach lifeguard tower three times due to erosion. It now sits 40 feet farther back, Howe said. The Kualoa tower was also relocated due to erosion.
In Waikiki, the county had to rebuild the main tower in front of the police substation because the beach lost so much sand that it undermined the concrete columns the tower was sitting on and it was tilting forward.
Howe said it cost “considerable sums,” but did not have exact figures.
Lifeguarded Beaches In Hawaii
On the North Shore, the Ehukai (Pipeline) and Sunset Beach towers have each been relocated three times. And the Chun’s Reef tower was also moved because of erosion.
At one point, the Ehukai tower was strapped to coconut trees to hold it in place, Howe said. Its new location appears more stable, but it cut off some sight lines looking east toward Sunset Beach because trees are in the way, he said, and the trees should really stay because they help stabilize the shore.
The Kawaena tower, also on the North Shore, had an 8-foot drop from the bottom of the stairs to the beach after severe erosion, Howe said. It was later moved back, too.
“We’re seeing more of these incidents at more locations, affecting more places.” — Jim Howe, Honolulu emergency services director
“We’re seeing more of these incidents at more locations, affecting more places,” Howe said.
The county is in the third year of a nine-year plan to replace all of its lifeguard towers, a project estimated to cost $2.5 million.
Changes in weather patterns in recent years, from higher tides to heavier rains, have led to faster-eroding beaches. Howe said the siting of the new towers must take that into consideration.
Part of the solution is portable towers, which can easily be moved back as the ocean encroaches.
Maui’s acting battalion chief, Jeff Giesea, said the portable towers the county recently bought can help lifeguards respond to rising sea levels as well as approaching hurricanes, which are expected to become more frequent.
“We believe we have a responsibility to incorporate these eventualities into our long-term planning,” he said. “Hoping for some technological miracle that will save us from having to adjust to the impacts of global warming is simply not a viable option, nor is hoping that the nearly unanimous opinions of experts in the field worldwide turn out to be wrong.”
Kauai has faced similar issues. The county has moved two lifeguard towers due to erosion and shifting shorelines, but officials are unable to directly link it to climate change.
The Kekaha lifeguard tower, on the west side, was moved in 2011 and 2012, Deputy Fire Chief Kilipaki Vaughan said. And the Kee tower on the north shore was relocated in April after unprecedented rainfall flooded and eroded the beach.
In some places around the state, the counties are running out of room to move the towers back any farther. One of the Waikiki towers has routinely had waves rolling under it the past few years, and the tower in front of the Duke Kahanamoku statue is set back about as far as it can go with the road and other infrastructure behind it.
Kauai, like Honolulu and the other counties, has also been increasing its lifeguards’ mobility to speed response times, especially to unguarded beaches.
“In tune with the changing of climate, the Ocean Safety Bureau has responded operationally with roving patrol Jet Ski units,” Vaughan said.
“These units are no longer pinned to a particular lifeguard tower,” he said, adding that they can respond to the “seasonal demands of beach attendance as well as the circumstantial demands of mother nature.”
Oahu guards have mitigated the sightline issue at Ehukai in part by using ATVs more to drive along the beach, Howe said.
These websites contain important information that can keep you safe.
These websites contain important information that can keep you safe.
Honolulu’s Ocean Safety division is up to 16 mobile units now, which consist of basically a small fire engine type truck with one or two personnel, he said. They launch rescue craft into the water and are used to pick up lifeguards at one tower to bring them to support an emergency elsewhere.
The units broaden the patrol area and are able to be deployed wherever lifeguards are most needed on any given day, a degree of flexibility that will become all the more useful as climate change affects ocean conditions.
Following Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s citywide directive, Howe said a new lifeguard training facility in Ewa Beach and a storage facility in Kailua have been located outside the 3-foot sea level rise exposure area that scientific modeling shows will likely be underwater by the end of this century or sooner.
Howe hopes this will protect pricey life-saving equipment, like all-terrain vehicles and personal watercraft, that must be moved to higher ground when serious storms approach the islands.
The equipment needs to remain easily accessible, but also safe from heavy rains, flooding and whipping winds that the islands are expected to experience more often in the coming years. The new Kailua facility, to be built on a bluff about 250 yards from the beach, is being constructed to withstand Category 2 hurricanes, Howe said.
“That will become important,” he said. “We expect more hurricanes and tropical storm events as impacts of global warming.”
As sea levels rise an expected 3 feet by 2100 — some studies show it could reach 6 feet — waves that would break farther offshore may start pounding closer to the shoreline, he said. That’s because deeper waters don’t allow the waves to dissipate as much.
“Shorebreak is a potential killer,” Fletcher said. “It can slam you and you get your cervical injuries.”
In between sets of waves, all that energy will be surging offshore, potentially creating stronger, pulsating rip currents — and in areas that historically may not have had one.
“The current will increase for seemingly no apparent reason,” Fletcher said. “Wave characteristics on the beach that we’re used to may change if we’re not paying attention.”
On Friday, a Kauai lifeguard roving Kealia beach on an ATV rescued a 21-year-old male visitor who was swimming that afternoon when he got sucked out in a known rip current on the south end.
Lifeguards used CPR and an automated external defibrillator to revive him. Firefighters and medics arrived to help, and he regained his pulse and was taken to the hospital, a county release says.
A warmer and more acidic ocean will do more than just cause corals to bleach, Fletcher said. Reefs may collapse as a result of the unhealthy corals, which could translate to deeper waters and impacts similar to those caused by rising sea levels.
While a small body of literature says overall wave height in the Pacific will decline because overall wind speed will decrease, there is also science that suggests Hawaii will see extremely large wave seasons on the islands’ north shores due to more frequent and stronger El Niños, Fletcher said.
That’s great news for big wave surfers, potentially dangerous for inexperienced surfers, and not so awesome for most of the surfing community.
“This all triggers a need for the lifeguards to be aware,” Fletcher said, adding that there should be increased climate change training for ocean safety officers.
Last month, for the first time, the annual Hawaii Ocean Safety Conference featured a panel on climate change. It included Fletcher, as well as Makena Coffman, director of the UH Institute for Sustainability and Resilience, and Alison Nugent, a UH atmospheric sciences professor.
The packed conference room was glued to their presentations on how climate change, sea level rise and weather patterns affect ocean safety.
Lifeguards have started paying more attention to jellyfish, especially large-scale impacts, Howe said. As the ocean temperature increases from the effects of global warming, jellyfish populations are expected to expand.
Active monitoring is already happening in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Spain. Now Honolulu ocean safety officers have begun monitoring changes in jellyfish and hydrozoan populations, Howe said, specifically the Portuguese man-of-war and box jellyfish.
Major changes in overall trends have not been documented, Howe said, but there was a big event Tuesday. Lifeguards posted warning signs and verbally warned hundreds of people about an influx of man-of-war at Windward Oahu beaches.
There were 30 stings and an estimated 500 man-of-war at Makapuu Beach, 80 stings and thousands of man-of-war at Waimanalo Beach, and 100 stings and thousands of man-of-war at Kailua Beach, a Honolulu ocean safety spokeswoman said.
Fletcher also has concerns about more hot, windless days leading to serious health issues or even death, as other parts of the world have experienced.
Howe said Honolulu hasn’t seen an uptick yet but the county is on the lookout. So is Hawaii Health Department Director Bruce Anderson.
“There are increased health risks with rising temperatures,” he said, adding that people with cardiovascular disease are especially at risk when it’s hot outside.
But that’s not the only thing Anderson is watching for when it comes to staying safe in the ocean as the climate changes.
As rainfall patterns change and erosion increases not just along the shoreline but in the mountains, more freshwater will enter the ocean — carrying with it everything it passes along the way. Debris, sewage, trash, chemicals, pesticides.
Certain bacteria is particularly concerning.
“When we have storm events, whether it’s a hurricane or tropical storm, we see heavy rains that causes streams to overflow and we see flooding in low-lying areas,” Anderson said. “When that happens, expect to see increased exposure to bacteria that causes infectious diseases like leptospirosis.”
That means keeping an eye out for more brown water advisories, which are already issued frequently.
Last week, advisories were in effect for Kailua Bay on Oahu and Hilo Bay on Hawaii island. The Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch now lets people receive email notifications whenever a beach or brown water advisory is posted or canceled.
“We’ve already seen record rainfalls and more storms coming our way, and we’re posting more beaches as a result of that,” Anderson said. “I can only think that’s going to be an increasingly important risk going forward.”
“A lot of it is just going to be public education so they’re aware of the risk.” — Bruce Anderson, Hawaii health director
The increased flooding also ups the risk of cesspools leaching into streams and the ocean. Hawaii has some 88,000 cesspools — leading the nation — and it’s estimated to cost $1.75 billion to convert them to more sanitary systems.
The Department of Health in 2017 published a report that prioritized the places, mostly rural areas, where cesspools presented the most danger to human wellbeing.
“It’s a big problem,” Anderson said. “A lot of it is just going to be public education so they’re aware of the risk and avoid swimming when we have heavy rains.”
The Department of Health is still working on defining what health risks associated with climate change will be of most concern and is working with other agencies to try to anticipate what will happen.
“Hopefully, we can find ways to address many of those issues,” Anderson said.
Hawaii taxpayers are already spending millions of dollars to replenish the sand at the most popular beaches, like Waikiki, as erosion eats away the shoreline.
At the same time, county and state agencies are reckoning with policies that for decades have destroyed beaches, whether it’s allowing development too close to the coast to permitting sea walls to protect private property at the expense of public resources.
“Human populations have always wanted to live as close to the coast as possible, and climate change is making those areas more prone to disaster,” said Josh Stanbro, who heads Honolulu’s voter-created Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency.
When a property is armored, it affects neighboring beaches by changing the natural process.
“When we lose the beach, it does become more dangerous for folks,” Stanbro said.
He anticipates changing dynamics when it comes to ocean safety as Hawaii loses some of its beaches to rising seas and erosion. More people will be jammed onto smaller areas, he said, and there could be more debris in the water. It also gets harder to get in and out of the water.
Hawaii has already seen erosion uncover concrete, rubble and rebar on beaches, the remnants of developments that were buried under sand.
The old foundation of Waikiki Tavern is regularly exposed at Kuhio Beach in Waikiki, Stanbro said, presenting a hazard to beachgoers. The county has tried to ameliorate it with “sand blankets,” and last year the state allocated money toward projects that could provide a permanent fix.
Part of the challenge has been determining whose responsibility it is to clear that stuff out, Stanbro said.
“Humanity has never dealt with this before,” he said. “We don’t have a guidebook.”
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
We need your help . . .
Our small newsroom believes wholeheartedly that news and information is a public service – not something to be hidden behind paywalls or diluted by ads. Your donations ensure that our reporting remains free and accessible to all communities, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. For a limited time become a Civil Beat donor and we’ll throw in a limited-edition Civil Beat t-shirt!
More Stories In This Special Report