The North Shore of Kauai boasts iconic surf spots and, growing up in Kapaa, Lana Vali knows them well. Although she moved to the mainland about six months ago, Vali plans to return to Hawaii one day and is worried her favorite surf spots will be unrecognizable.
“I was wondering how sea level rise or climate change in general will affect surfing conditions … and I was wondering if the current spots will be too submerged to create the waves that we’re used to,” she said.
1. Stronger swells will be needed for waves to break in some areas as the sea level rises.
2. Coral bleaching will change surf breaks that rely on reefs.
3. Dramatic weather events, like heavy rainfall and floods, will wash pollution into the ocean.
4. Strong winds and an increase in tropical storms will bring huge waves to some areas.
“For the most part, we know that future sea level rise is going to impact surfing negatively,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, a coastal preservation manager at the Surfrider Foundation.
Climate change causes the sea level to rise in two ways. As glaciers and ice sheets melt, more water is released into the oceans. Higher temperatures cause ocean water to expand, a process called thermal expansion. According to NASA, about a third of global sea level rise can be attributed to thermal expansion.
A comprehensive study focusing on the coast of California found 3 feet of sea level rise would eliminate 16% of surf spots and threaten another 18%.
“That’s very striking and it’s going to be applicable to all of the surf breaks around the world as we see sea levels rise,” Sekich-Quinn said.
Climate scientists predict at least 3 feet of sea level rise by the year 2100, but it could be up to 6 feet depending on the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
This interactive map shows what 6 feet of sea level rise would look like across Hawaii.
“We really don’t know when it’s going to come,” Sekich-Quinn said. “But I think we’re starting to figure out it’s going to come sooner than we thought.”
Rising waters will cause waves to break further inland and swells will have to be larger to break in the deeper water. This could completely eliminate surfable waves at certain breaks in Hawaii, including those off of Waikiki.
Many of Oahu’s iconic surf spots, like Banzai Pipeline, Velzyland and Haleiwa rely on a reef to create surfable waves. This summer, Hawaii had its third widespread coral bleaching event since 2014.
“If (the reefs) can’t rebuild due to ocean water warming and ocean acidification then we’re going to start seeing surfing impacted,” Sekich-Quinn said.
Jonny White has been surfing off of Waikiki for decades, and said he’s seen the breaks change right before his eyes.
“Since the ’70s … the waves are just different, some that never used to break are now breaking and there used to be a longer left out here,” he said, pointing to a break near the Kewalo Basin Park after a Tuesday evening surf session.
As climate change triggers more intense weather events, like storms and floods, rain will wash sewage and urban pollution into the water.
“Surfers have to take care of the coastline you know because we’re the ones in the water,” White said, noting that a number of his fellow surfers have gotten infections if they’ve gone surfing with a cut or scratch.
“It used to be salt-water healing, the ocean would heal you,” he said.
Another surfer near Kewalo Basin Park said he was surprised when a scratch on his foot became infected.
“We used to go in the water here after being bashed up all the time as kids … no problem. Now: no,” he said, pointing to a round scar nestled between his two smallest toes.
“It’s why surfers are told to stay out of the water for 72 hours after a major rain,” Sekich-Quinn said. But post-storm winds can create irresistible waves for many surfers.
In many places, including the infamous Peahi surf break off the coast of Maui, the increase in powerful storms will mean even taller waves, thrilling many surfers who focus on big-wave competitions.
Oahu’s south shore is usually pretty mild in the winter but this year, surfers are still riding waves around Waikiki in November. It appears to be part of a trend, as last year the spot received swells through mid-October.
“That actually has run through my mind before like, well, maybe you know, that climate change was making the waves break like this all year round,” said surfer Clyde Matsusaka.
Another long-time surfer, Darrel Kawano, chimed in, saying that he’s seen the wave heights around Bali and North Sumatra rise so dramatically in recent years he’s going to stop making the trip out there.
“When you’re young, everything is good. When you’re older you’re a little bit smarter,” he said with a laugh before jumping into the waves as the sun rose over Waikiki.
“Are We Doomed And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.
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