Hawaii has broken a heat record almost every day since April.
It’s hot. It’s muggy. And it’s exactly what climate experts have been telling us would happen for decades — increasingly warmer weather as we emit ever more carbon dioxide and heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
Setting so many new record highs on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and the Big Island also isn’t really that surprising, given how little the temperature fluctuates in the islands each day, each month or even each season — and how close the mercury already hovers near those record levels.
It was just a matter of time for a few different effects of climate change to come together to create one of the most uncomfortable summers, at least heat-wise, that Hawaii has experienced.
What’s surprising to climatologists and others is how little we’ve done to turn things around, despite the mountain of evidence and myriad early warnings. But there are efforts afoot that could bring relief in the near future.
“We have been talking about this for the longest of time,” said University of Hawaii climate professor Camilo Mora. “This is exactly what you expect from climate change. It’s whether you choose to embrace what is to come.”
Meteorologists primarily blame the ocean for the hotter weather. It’s been several degrees higher than normal, so our tradewinds — which are also increasingly less frequent thanks to climate change — are failing to blow in the relief they usually bring.
Couple that with less rainfall and high humidity and it’s a recipe for the kind of days that make you sweat just seconds after stepping outside your air-conditioned abode.
Looking at the weather maps, National Weather Services meteorologist Bob Burke points to a big blob over the central western Pacific indicating warm ocean temperatures.
“That’s the main culprit,” he said. “We need to get some winds to stir the ocean up and get the water back to more normal temperatures. It’s not something you can flip a switch, at least not here in Hawaii.”
Burke said that’s because Hawaii lacks enough land mass to create an upwelling of cool water like the continent.
Last week, waters were warmest off Lanai, hitting about 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Normally, those peak at around 80 degrees, Burke said.
As a meteorologist, Burke knows weather. So he declined to speculate on what’s happening with the climate. But scientists studying what these changing trends in weather patterns mean over time have cast some dire warnings.
The latest climate model, released last week by French scientists, projects greenhouse gas emissions will cause average global temperatures to rise 10.8 to 12.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century.
That’s much higher than the targets set in the Paris climate accord and beyond previous estimates.
The Paris agreement, adopted in 2015 by almost every country, called for keeping global temperature increase to well below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in order to ward off the worst effects of climate change. The U.S. also signed on to the agreement but President Trump has announced his intention to withdraw in 2020.
Heat waves are one of nearly a dozen major effects of climate change, including sea level rise, drought, fires and floods.
Mora led a group of 23 scientists in a review of about 12,000 scientific papers to develop a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of climate change. Their findings were published last year in the journal Nature Climate Change.
The team found at least 45 effects just for heat waves, including impacts on food, water, infrastructure, security, the economy and health. One of those effects was death, which Mora delved more into in subsequent studies.
He found more than two dozen ways to die from heat waves. One of the most common involves your brain’s thermostat sending blood to your skin to help cool you down. But if it’s too hot out, your body doesn’t cool down.
“What is surprising is we are not doing anything.” — Camilo Mora, University of Hawaii climate scientist
The blood that was redirected to your skin causes a lack of blood, and in turn oxygen, to your gut, making it too acidic, Mora said. It eventually breaks the gut’s lining, emptying your stomach contents into your bloodstream.
“It’s like a terror movie with 27 endings to choose from,” Mora said.
What Can We Do?
The immediate solution to protect yourself from the heat is to find an air-conditioned respite and stay hydrated. But Mora said there are also longterm solutions at hand that are not difficult to implement.
Planting trees will simultaneously cool the islands by creating more shade and soak up carbon emissions to reduce further global warming. So if you’re concerned about the heat or other effects of climate change, Mora encourages you to plant a tree.
He has organized his tree-planting effort for Oct. 26. Anyone interested in helping him plant 10,000 trees in a day can learn more at gocarbonneutral.org. More details will be posted soon on the site.
“People get shocked when we are breaking heat records,” Mora said. “But what is surprising is we are not doing anything” to stop it.
He believes we suffer from short-term memory, forgetting recent events that should have caused us to act. Just last year, the islands were paralyzed by the threat of a hurricane. Fires ripped through California. Last month, Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas.
“We just move on,” Mora said. “That’s what needs to change.”
Last year, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a landmark report that the worst effects are coming by 2040 instead of years later as initially expected. That has made taking action now all the more important.
To know where those tree-planting efforts should best be directed, the office recently completed Oahu’s first heat mapping campaign. It involved coordinating, training and equipping 28 volunteers with sensors that record temperature and humidity. Then they drove hourlong routes through neighborhoods, industrial and commercial areas and parks across the island on Aug. 31.
Matthew Gonser, the office’s coastal and water program manager, said that data will guide city officials on where to improve tree canopies, for instance, and where there are economic inequalities when it comes to heat. It will also be used in developing safe routes to school as well as pedestrian and bike paths, he said.
“It’s not just the where — but where to do it first,” he said.
The data is being analyzed and is expected to be released before Thanksgiving.
“While it can be very daunting and challenging, we have a very great opportunity to rectify the systems at play,” Gonser said.
It could translate to reforms in building designs and code, such as more sustainable roof policies like rooftop gardens or reflective coatings.
On Oahu, he said the state urban district comprises about 25% of the island. Of that, about 30% is roofs and roads, which is about 50 square miles. Those impervious surfaces make the island hotter, he said.
Statewide, Hawaii has broken heat records more than 180 times at different locations since April. Gonser said the science is telling us these hot days may be “normal or a cool temperature in the future.”
“These events are manifesting in longterm trends,” he said.
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