Increasing sea levels may cause erosion at Hawai‘i’s sandy beaches to double by 2050, according to a new University of Hawai‘i study.

New research by University of Hawai‘i at Manoa scientists brings into clearer focus how dramatically Hawai‘i’s beaches may be affected by coastal erosion by 2050 and beyond.

Globally, the asset exposure to erosion is “enormous,” according to a UH news release.

A UH research team developed a model to assess erosion hazards under higher sea levels, taking into account historical Hawai‘i’s shoreline changes and the projected acceleration of sea level rise reported from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The results of the study — published in the Natural Hazards journal in March — indicate that coastal erosion of Hawai‘i’s beaches may double by mid-century.

Like the majority of Hawaiʻi’s sandy beaches, most shorelines at the 10 study sites on Kauaʻi, Oʻahu and Maui are retreating. If these beaches follow current trends, an average 20 to 40 feet of shoreline recession is expected by 2050 and 2100, respectively.

“When we modeled future shoreline change with the increased rates of sea level rise (SLR) projected under the IPCC’s ‘business as usual’ scenario, we found that increased SLR causes an average 16 to 20 feet of additional shoreline retreat by 2050, and an average of nearly 60 feet of additional retreat by 2100,” said Tiffany Anderson, lead author and post-doctoral researcher at the UHM School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

She said this means the average amount of shoreline recession roughly doubles by 2050 with increased SLR, compared to historical extrapolation alone. By 2100, it is nearly two-and-a-half times the historical extrapolation.

“Further, our results indicate that approximately 92 percent and 96 percent of the shorelines will be retreating by 2050 and 2100, respectively, except at Kailua, Oʻahu, which is projected to begin retreating by mid-century,” Anderson said.

The model accounts for accretion of sand onto beaches and long-term sediment processes in making projections of future shoreline position. As part of ongoing research, the resulting erosion hazard zones are overlain on aerial photos and other geographic layers in a geographic information system to provide a tool for identifying resources, infrastructure and property exposed to future coastal erosion.

“This study demonstrates a methodology that can be used by many shoreline communities to assess their exposure to coastal erosion resulting from the climate crisis,” said Chip Fletcher, associate dean at the UHM SOEST and co-author of the paper.

Mapping historical shoreline change provides useful data for assessing exposure to future erosion hazards, even if the rate of sea level rise changes in the future. The predicted increase in erosion will threaten thousands of homes, many miles of roadway and other assets in Hawai‘i.

“With these new results, government agencies can begin to develop adaptation strategies, including new policies, for safely developing the shoreline,” Anderson said.

To further improve the estimates of climate impacts, the next step for the team of researchers will be to combine the new model with assessments of increased flooding by waves.

The research was sponsored by the sate Department of Land and Natural Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Islands Climate Science Center.

Tiffany R. Anderson, Charles H. Fletcher, Matthew M. Barbee, L. Neil Frazer & Bradley M. Romine (2015). Doubling of coastal erosion under rising sea level by mid-century in Hawai‘i. Natural Hazards doi:10.1007/s11069-015-1698-6

Visit: http://www.soest.hawaii.edu/ for more information.