Friday, May 9, 2014

Pacific takeaway from National Climate Assessment: Significant change

Okay, you drove to work this morning and you were the only one in the car.

The trades weren’t blowing last night, so you had air conditioning blasting.

Instead of local fresh fruit, Hawaiian-lain eggs or baked taro for breakfast, you had cereal or toast made with Kansas wheat, shipped 3,600 miles to put a little well-traveled starch in your system.

If that was you, then when it comes to climate change, you don’t get it, do you? (Okay, perhaps you get it but refuse to do anything about it, or don’t think anything can help at this point.)

It is now abundantly clear that climate change has changed the islands already, will continue to drastically change our lives in the Islands, and will make our grandkids’ lives in the Islands very different from what we’ve known.

How different? The just-released National Climate Assessment had a Pacific Islands portion, and it was reviewed this week in a panel presentation at East West Center. You can see the report discussed in a Vimeobriefing here.

 It’s a bunch of folks who know a couple of things:  Victoria Keener, Research Fellow, East-West Center & Lead Principal Investigator, Pacific RISA;  John Marra, Coastal Geology, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration;  Thomas Giambelluca, Climatology and Hydrology, University of Hawai‘i;  Deanna Spooner, Environmental Policy and Management, Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative;  Steve Miller, Endangered Species Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service;  Maxine Burkett, Environmental Law, University of Hawai‘i; and Jeffrey Polovina, Ecosystems and Oceanography, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

State Land Board chair William Aila Jr. opened the session, describing his own qualifications, not as a high-ranking government official, but as “a great-grandson, a grandson, a son, a father, a grandfather.”

In doing so, he makes a point that’s not made often enough.

We haven’t screwed the climate up for ourselves so much as for our descendants. They’ll suffer the consequences for centuries (see previous RaisingIslands post). And yet, Aila still felt the need to speak to the deniers: “Climate change IS happening,” he said.

And it’s happening in our lifetimes. Changes that normally happen on the scale of geologic time are happening within the span of human lives.

Aila said he can remember Wai`anae Coast streams flowing seasonally and in one case all the time. Today, none flow except in extreme storms, he said. Meaning no `o`opu, no `opae, no streamlife at all between the mountains and the sea.

But the issue isn’t just environmental impact, but impacts on the way humans interact with the environment.

“Climate change means cultural change,” he said.

Giambelluca said Hawai`i has indeed been in a multi-decade drying trend, and can expect continued reductions in wet-season rainfall, decreased cloud cover, and higher temperatures.

You can find the Hawai`i and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands portion of the national climate assessment in the right column on this page

To save you time, here are the key takeaways from the document:

1. Warmer oceans are leading to increased coral bleaching events and disease outbreaks in coral reefs, as well as changed distribution patterns of tuna fisheries. Ocean acidification will reduce coral growth and health. Warming and acidification, combined with existing stresses, will strongly affect coral reef fish communities.

2. Freshwater supplies are already constrained and will become more limited on many islands. Saltwater intrusion associated with sea level rise will reduce the quantity and quality of freshwater in coastal aquifers, especially on low islands. In areas where precipitation does not increase, freshwater supplies will be adversely affected as air temperature rises.

3. Increasing temperatures, and in some areas reduced rainfall, will stress native Pacific Island plants and animals, especially in high-elevation ecosystems with increasing exposure to invasive species, increasing the risk of extinctions.

4. Rising sea levels, coupled with high water levels caused by storms, will incrementally increase coastal flooding and erosion, damaging coastal ecosystems, infrastructure, and agriculture, and negatively affecting tourism.

5. Mounting threats to food and water security, infrastructure, health, and safety are expected to lead to increasing human migration, making it increasingly difficult for Pacific Islanders to sustain the region’s many unique customs, beliefs, and languages.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2014

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