All across Hawai‘i, dialog about the impacts of climate change on our island state are ramping up. The past year’s “King Tides,” along with the erosion caused by typical winter swells, are among the events that are helping to raise awareness about what is predicted to happen in the future as the planet faces warming, according to a recent release by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“There’s absolutely no question that human production of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and others are causing global climate changes … the science is rock solid, and the negative impacts that have already begun to accrue and accelerate are quite frightening,” said Dr. Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawai‘i School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.
Fletcher is one of the hundreds of people around the state now engaging in conversations in many different ways and on many different platforms about climate change and all of its consequences: extreme weather including heat waves, and stronger and more hurricanes in Hawaiʻi; ocean warming, acidification, and anoxia; sea level rise, flooding, and coastal erosion; declining rainfall and changes in wind patterns in Hawaiʻi; local species extinctions, loss of native forests, and multiple ecosystem threats; and the proliferation of diseases that have been uncommon in Hawai‘i’s past.
Recently, the ongoing community-wide conversation about climate change impacts on our natural resources was the topic of a public gathering on Kaua‘i. Additionally, sea level rise and its impacts on Hawai‘i were the subject of a half-hour television special, and three administrators from DLNR Divisions highlighted the impacts of climate change on our natural resources, mauka to makai.
“This is a threat we can prepare for now. Climate change adaptation and mitigation is going to take our very best collaborative thinking, planning and approaches from everyone. We’re fortunate in that much of this has already started in earnest. Ultimately climate change will impact us all, our way-of-life and our human, natural and cultural resources,” DLNR Chair Suzanne Case said.
Our Forests, Our Waters, Our Life
“In the last century average rainfall has decreased and this reduces the availability of freshwater in some places and has impacts on Hawai‘i’s delicate ecosystems,” commented David Smith, administrator of the DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife. He said, “If you’re a hiker, hula dancer, diver, bird watcher, cultural practitioner, fisher, hunter, woodworker, naturalist or are just proud to call Hawai‘i home, we want you involved.”
Teams from DOFAW and the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources are working to safeguard the iconic natural areas that make Hawai‘i unique and to take steps that will improve the resiliency of both terrestrial and ocean ecosystems and help arm nature to combat the negative effects of climate change in the islands. These measures include: maximizing the capture and storage of freshwater from native forests; protecting species unique to Hawai‘i and essential for ecosystem health; reducing coastal runoff and erosion; reducing greenhouse gas emissions by storing carbon in forest trees; and promoting and encouraging safe and ethical resource-based recreation.
A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that improved stewardship of land is a major solution to climate change. Converting non-native grass and shrublands to forests on DOFAW lands alone would provide an additional four million tons of carbon sequestration. Furthermore, stewardship of native forests is the most cost-effective way of protecting coral reefs and creating a more resilient Hawai’i.
“We must continue to encourage public involvement in conservation issues and develop responsible attitudes and an abiding sense of stewardship to the thousands of native fish, mammals, invertebrates, plants and birds that call Hawai‘i home. With broad community effort, we will be better suited to discuss and make and take the appropriate actions to adapt to, and mitigate against, the multitude impacts of climate change,” said Dr. Bruce Anderson, DAR administrator.
DLNR & YOU — Rising Seas in Hawai‘i
Recently, a local television station (KFVE-TV, K5) broadcast the first airing of the DLNR & YOU TV special, “Rising Seas in Hawai‘i.” This half-hour documentary tells the stories of citizens, scientists, policymakers and political leaders who are deeply engaged in conversations about and planning for rising seas in the coming years and decades.
John Fink, K5 Vice-president & General Manager, has aired five DLNR-produced TV specials in the last two years. Fink said, “As this program demonstrates, sea level rise is going to impact Hawai‘i in dramatic fashion and is expected to have far-reaching effects on virtually every segment of our island-life. This documentary, and all the other conversations happening around climate change in our state, will help raise awareness and ultimately and hopefully engage everyone in taking personal actions.”
The program is now available for viewing and linking at: https://vimeo.com/249760017
Climate Change and Conservation Conversation on Kaua‘i
On Jan. 9, the National Tropical Botanical Garden brought together a panel of experts to present and discuss with the public, the impacts of climate change on the ecosystems of the Garden Island. During this public lecture, more than 100 people listened and asked questions and encouraged future conversations about this issue.
Dr. Maggie Sporck-Koehler, a DOFAW botanist who often works collaboratively with the Plant Extinction Prevention Program pointed out that one third of Hawai‘i’s native plants are federally listed as endangered.
“Narrowly endemic and rare species do not fare well under climate change prediction models. As Hawai‘i is anticipated to become increasingly warmer and drier, the best habitats for rare plants are likely to contract, extend to higher elevations, or disappear altogether,” Sporck-Koehler said.
She says DOFAW botanists, PEPP, and other partners are already in the process of identifying the most vulnerable species and using innovative, out-of-the-box thinking to determine strategies to armor them against climate change impacts.
Dr. Lisa “Cali” Crampton of the Kaua‘i Forest Bird Recovery Project described how numerous native species of endemic forest birds are threatened in multiple ways by climate change.
“Many of these birds and the plants they depend on for life are temperature-dependent. As it gets hotter, the type of forest they need shrinks. They’re already struggling to survive due to population loss from predators, habitat shrinkage, and diseases that also become more wide-spread in a hotter temperature profile. In addition, as we saw with the powerful Hurricane Iniki, all it takes is one major storm to wipe the remaining birds of certain species off the face of the Earth. Hurricanes are predicted to become more common as the climate changes,” Crampton said.
And life in the ocean is also already being negatively impacted by climate change. Katie Nalesere, an education specialist with DAR, recalled the 2014 and 2015 mass coral bleaching events — the worst in recorded history in the Main Hawaiian Islands — that in some places around the state resulted in mortality of up to 50 percent of corals. She said, “Our coral reefs are existing now at the very edge of their threshold. They cannot survive with big increases in ocean temperatures.”
Nalesere said the recent bleaching events served as a major wake-up call and led to the development of the state’s first coral reef bleaching recovery plan, which incorporates best strategies from around the globe, to aid in coral recovery following such events. It’s predicted that by 2050, coral reefs everywhere will experience annual bleaching due to higher sea surface temperatures.
Sea Level Rise Adaptation, Mitigation
For the last three years, a broad cross-section of government agencies met regularly as the Hawai‘i Interagency Climate Adaptation Committee (to develop a Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report (SLR Report). It is intended to serve as a technical “playbook” to identify areas around the state that are vulnerable to sea level rise through the end of this century. Also included is the development of mechanisms and strategies for adapting to the physical, social and economic impacts of sea level rise.
“We collectively must face some very tough and very expensive decisions, particularly about whether we move or fortify coastal infrastructure like roads and highways, homes, hotels, condos and businesses; do we move entire communities?” asked Sam Lemmo, the administrator of the DLNR Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands.
The SLR Report developed by the ICAC was completed at the end of 2017 and accepted by the successor to the ICAC: the Hawai‘i Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission (Climate Commission). The Report and a companion Hawaiʻi Sea Level Rise Viewer are online (links below). The report was prepared by Tetra Tech, Inc. and OCCL, with science support from the UH School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, and UH Sea Grant. The online viewer was developed by the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS) at UH, under the direction of UH Sea Grant and DLNR, and with funding support from the NOAA 2016 Regional Coastal Resilience Grants Program.
Hawai‘i’s Climate Commission and Next Steps
The Climate Commission has a much broader scope of responsibility than the ICAC, in that it is legislatively mandated to investigate all aspects of climate change and begin making recommendations to lawmakers and policymakers about what Hawai‘i needs to do to prepare, adapt and mitigate in the face of our changing climate.
Case, who co-chairs the commission with state Planning Director Leo Asuncion said, “We expect to meet quarterly to continue the conversations, refine and disseminate the scientific research and predictions we get on climate change impacts, and develop the necessary plans and strategies to guide how Hawai‘i adapts to what we know will happen in the future. We’re at the red flag stage now: we know it’s coming and we want to do everything humanly possible to avoid getting to the warning stage before it’s too late.”
Case says that by cutting our individual and collective carbon footprints (how much we contribute to greenhouse gas emissions) by 50 percent per decade, we stand a small chance of limiting global warming to under 2⁰C (3.6⁰F) above the pre-industrial global average. This will reduce, not eliminate its effects. Studies show that the most powerful steps we can take are to drive less, have smaller families, eat a more plant-based and locally grown diet, and reduce our air travel. Additionally, because we can’t stop climate change due to the large amount of CO2 already present in the atmosphere after more than two centuries of fossil fuel consumption, we must take strong and immediate actions to adapt to its negative impacts. We encourage everyone in Hawai‘i to get engaged in the conversations and to learn about climate change impacts and adaptation. It is something that will impact us all in the coming years and decades.