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Climate Change Will Ruin Hawaii, New Study Suggests

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HAWAII AERIAL
Hawaii, Oahu, Honolulu And Waikiki, Aerial View Of Royal Hawaiian Hotel. | Education Images via Getty Images

Climate change has its sights on its next victim, and it's one of America's favorite vacation spots.

Hawaii is known for its near perfect weather, but a new report from the University of Hawaii's Sea Grant program states that islands in the Pacific might be unrecognizable in the coming years as climate change makes them hotter, arid, stormy and even disease-ridden.

According to "Climate Change Impacts In Hawaii: A Summary Of Climate Change And Its Impacts To Hawaii’s Ecosystems And Communities," which was paid for by Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), the oceans, rainfall, ecosystems and immunity of people who live on islands in the Pacific are all at peril. But what’s more, tourism -- an industry responsible for most of the state’s annual revenue -- might all but vanish.

Amongst the doom and gloom, the study projects:
  • Higher average temperatures, stressing native animals and plants and causing an uptick in heat-related illnesses in people (think dengue fever or cholera), as well as a higher concentration of invasive species;
  • A decrease in trade winds, which would disrupt the rainfall patterns across each of the islands and create periods of drought and heavy rain and flooding;
  • Warmer oceans and higher ocean acidity, which could trigger massive coral bleaching, marine migration, and affect the ocean’s circulation and the way it distributes nutrients.

Perhaps the most obvious change around the state will be the rise in sea levels, which have risen about 0.5-1.3 inches per decade throughout the last 100 years. The study projects this rate to accelerate, resulting in a 1-foot to 3-foot rise (or possibly more) by 2100.

That would mean most of Waikiki and its famous beach would either be underwater or highly eroded by it. The animation above, taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Viewer, shows what sea levels would look like around Waikiki and Honolulu in a worst case scenario: if sea levels rose 6 feet. The new shoreline would be almost a full mile inland (past the Waikiki hotel strip and into neighborhoods such as Kakaako, downtown Honolulu, and even Moiliili). Such a scenario would impact hotel revenues by as much as $661.2 million, with a scary $2 billion lost overall, each year.

Charles Fletcher, a UH geology professor who contributed to the report, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he imagines that Oahu’s tourist nucleus would have to pack up and move, establishing a "new Waikiki" somewhere on higher ground. “By the end of the century, I would be surprised if Waikiki Beach is still there," he said.

Researchers admit that nobody knows exactly when or where these changes will take place -- some impacts of climate change have already been observed (such as beach erosion on the north shore of Oahu), while others are “projected to manifest in the coming decades.” But the report is clear in its language that the “warming of the Earth’s climate system is unequivocal,” and that climate change is caused by human-influenced greenhouse gases.

Right now, tourism is still cranking in Hawaii. HTA recently said that July 2014 was the highest July on record for visitor spending and arrivals. But the organization funded the UH study in order to anticipate the challenges Hawaii faces in the coming years -- and to try to minimize their effects.

The UH report lists various ways agencies and residents can change habits to possibly influence change:
  • Utilize more rain catchment systems and conserve water;
  • Preserve and restore coral reefs, beaches, forests, streams, floodplains, and wetlands that have the "inherent capacity to avoid, minimize, or mitigate the impacts of climate change;"
  • Go back to the ways of ancient Hawaiian tradition, living along the streams and utilizing the land more efficiently and independently.

“There’s a lot we can do to start preparing,” Dolan Eversole, an agent with the UH Sea Grant program, told the Star-Advertiser. “It’s like a freight train. We can see it coming. Are we going to be ready?”

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