Hawaii’s islands are under threat from rising sea levels, experts warn

Known for its scenic landscape, tropical climate and beautiful beaches, Hawaii is a tourist destination for people around the world. But concerns have arisen that its iconic Waikiki Beach could soon be underwater as rising sea levels caused by climate change overtake its white sand beaches and bustling city streets.

The state's lawmakers are attempting to pass legislation that would protect the coastline and help defend Honolulu from tidal inundations, with experts forecasting it will receive frequent flooding within the next 15 to 20 years.

So far, both Hawaii's Senate and House of Representatives have passed a measure, HB 1487, which would be used to establish a "climate protection pilot project."


"Climate change and warming seas are also causing Hawaii to see more hurricanes of increasing intensity than ever before. A direct hit on Honolulu is expected to mean a loss of [$40 billion] to Hawaii's infrastructure and economy," the bill states. "The loss of coastal property and infrastructure, increased cost for storm damage and insurance, and loss of life are inevitable if nothing is done, which will add a significant burden to local taxpayers, the State's economy, and way of life."

Now, the Senate and House of Representatives are attempting to reconcile different versions of the bill before it is sent to Gov. David Ige's desk for him to sign. Ige's office has not yet said whether he will sign the bill.

“The latest data on sea level rise is quite scary and it’s accelerating faster than we ever thought possible,” State Representative Chris Lee, a Democrat and lead author of the bill told The Independent.

A study that discussed sea-level rises in Hawaii suggests that the state will see a 3-foot rise in ocean levels by the end of the century, with more than 6,000 buildings and 20,000 people across the island chain being disrupted by the flooding.

By 2045, Hawaii wants to get towards 100 percent renewable energy, according to the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. As the most fossil fuel dependent state in the nation, the initiative would allow the state to be more independent, save $3 billion in costs on imported oil and establish a green economic sector, according to goals laid out on the plan's website.

Initially, the idea had received pushback because of cost, Lee told CNN, but once the state utilities did their due diligence, they found it would save $5.5 billion.

As a set of islands in the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii appears to be more susceptible to climate change than other U.S. states. According to a report from the National Climate Assessment, an increase of wave heights is considered "great concern" due to the fact the Pacific Islands, and Hawaii in particular, "are almost entirely dependent upon imported food, fuel, and material."


The highest tides of recent years have sent seawater flowing across Waikiki Beach and onto roads and sidewalks lining its main thoroughfare, and interactive maps of the Hawaiian Islands show that many parts of the state are expected to be hit by extensive flooding, coastal erosion and loss of infrastructure in coming decades.

That's an alarming scenario for a state where beach tourism is the primary driver of the economy, leading some lawmakers to insist that planning for rising tides should start now.

In this June 23, 2017 photo, sand bags line the beach at Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu as record high tides hit the islands. (Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Bruce Asato via AP)

In this June 23, 2017 photo, sand bags line the beach at Ala Moana Beach Park in Honolulu as record high tides hit the islands. (Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Bruce Asato via AP)

Lee's bill is similar to action taken by New York City after a storm surge from Superstorm Sandy led to $19 billion in damage in 2012. The proposal would see $4 million get put into the program's development over the next two years, as well as more research for a carbon tax that might raise funds and lower the state's dependence on fossil fuels.

Hawaiian Electric Industries, the largest supplier of electricity in the state, has been at the forefront of investing in clean energy sources to supply power to 95 percent of the state's population. According to its 2018-2019 sustainability report, Hawaiian Electric is set to have 30 percent of its energy come from renewable resources such as solar, wind and hydro by 2020.

Lee said urban areas such as Waikiki are often "built in such a way that it forms a protective barrier against the kind of storm events that are inevitable."

But in more rural areas, he said, new construction could be restricted close to shore "to preserve dune systems and build in a lot of natural solutions that are much more cost effective and provide a much more resilient result than simply building out concrete infrastructure or anything of the sort."

Hawaii, which is largely Democratic and has been a champion of climate issues in the U.S. in the past, has experienced widespread support for the legislation, Lee said.

In September, the aforementioned report was updated to include new research that showed the area affected by the flooding increasing by 35 to 54 percent.

University of Hawaii researcher Tiffany Anderson, who led the study, said traditional sea level forecasts use what is known as the "bathtub model" to measure where water will rise and flood land. But she was surprised by the dramatic increase revealed when she factored in more variables such as beach erosion and wave energy fluctuations, which are not used in traditional climate change flooding predictions.


"We've long suspected processes like shoreline erosion, waves overtopping and inundation would be additional factors for Hawaii," Anderson said. "We found out it covers a lot more land ... I wasn't expecting such a large increase due to these other two processes."

State Rep. Nicole Lowen, a bill backer and Democrat, said people hoping to build near the coast should already be wary.

"It would make sense already to say, 'If we know this is a sea level rise inundation area, then why would we permit a new structure,'" said Lowen, who was the lead author of separate legislation that would have changed construction permitting standards across the state.

That measure died when it was referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee and not scheduled for a hearing.

"I think sea level rise and climate change impacts globally are going to have a huge disruptive effect on economies," Lowen said. "And having an economy that's so heavily based on tourism and so easily impacted by something like the cost of oil rising, for example, it's not resilient."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.