NERRS: Climate Change and Rising Sea Levels

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Sea Level Rise in Hawai'i

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Fig. 1. A snapshot of the "Blue Line Project" showing high tide with a 1 m sea level increase. Follow the link below to see the full animation.

Image copyright and source

Image courtesy of SOEST

The most immediate change threatening Hawai‘i and other Pacific Islands will no doubt be a result of sea level rise. Recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections show a sea-level rise of 48 cm (about 1.5 feet) by 2100. Globally, 100,000,000 people live within approximately 1 m (3.3 feet) of present day sea level, including most of Hawai‘i’s population. Changes in sea level will be felt through increases in intensity and frequency of storm surges, increased erosion, loss of important wetlands and mangroves, impacts on coral reefs, and impacts on human settlements. A reduced availability of fresh
water due to seawater intrusion into Hawai‘i’s coastal freshwater aquifers will severely affect Hawai‘i’s ability to obtain fresh water. Increased coastal erosion and loss of land will affect not only where people live, but the livelihood of the tourism economy for all Pacific Islands as beaches, like Waikīkī in particular, become submerged.

A rise in sea-surface temperatures is also predicted to occur. The range of this rise in temperature is debatable, but is currently predicted to be 1.4–5.8°C (2.7-7.7°F). Current coral bleaching episodes result (in part) from a 2°C (3.6°F) increase in summer maximum temperatures in many parts of the world. If sea surface temperatures increased in Hawai‘i and other Pacific Islands, bleaching could effectively wipe out all live coral on the reefs. When the coral dies, the reefs won’t continue to grow, and all the species that depend on the reef for food and shelter would be displaced and possibly die out, seriously impacting fisheries.


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Fig. 2. Moku o' Loe, or Coconut Island, sits within Kāne'ohe Bay, and is the home of the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology.

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Image from The Unnatural History of Kāne'ohe Bay. Download the attachement below to read more.

The He'eia National Estuarine Research Reserve is also home to Moku o Lo'e (Coconut Island), the base of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) founded in 1947. Researchers have been documenting the unique features of the Kane'ohe Bay ecosystem, spanning physical, chemical, and biological aspects. The reefs within this reserve have persisted despite natural and anthropogenic disturbances, however there is growing concern about the limits to this resilisence. For a more detailed look at the history of Kāne'ohe Bay, check out the Teacher Guide below, researched and published by HIMB scientists Dr. Keisha Bahr, Dr. Paul Jokiel, and Dr. Robert Toonen.


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Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawai?i, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.