If global warming continues as most scientists expect, Hawaii will be a hotter place sometime in the future with fewer cooling tradewinds and more drought, fewer waterfalls and forest streams.
Marine life diversity will suffer in warmer waters as acidity kills off coral reefs. Sea level rise will mean fewer beaches and more flooding as the coast erodes and tropical storms strike the islands with greater frequency and intensity.
Is this the kind of place tourists will want to visit?
A new University of Hawaii report (link opens PDF) that doesn’t specfy when the impacts will hit warns the tourism industry to start preparing now for the effects linked to climate change because they likely will have a profound effect on the state and its No. 1 business.
Among some of the more interesting findings:
–Hawaii will likely see more competition for visitors as warmer climate zones expand and new, easier-to-reach tropical resorts emerge in coastal regions from Texas to Florida.
–Surfing, the sport of kings and ancient Hawaiian tradition, will suffer. Some of Hawaii’s most famous surf spots could become unsuitable as water levels rise and swells are no longer able to break regularly on the reef, although other regular breaks may surface.
The report, paid for in part by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, raises the alarm about climate change and its potentially disastrous impact on Hawaii and its economy.
Called “Climate Change and the Visitor Industry,” the report suggests strategies for adapting to the changes and includes a list of vulnerable tourism sites, including major beaches, parks, attractions, hospitals and transportation assets.
Mike McCartney, president and CEO of Hawaii Tourism Authority, said his organization will use the study to help guide the industry in its environmental initiatives.
“HTA is a knowledge-based organization and we believe it’s important to be informed about Hawaii’s environment as it relates to tourism,” he said in a statement.
The report paints a rather bleak picture of the future as Hawaii and the tourist industry will be forced to cope with an onslaught of environmental changes that will only intensify over time.
As a consequence, the report said, the cost of living and the cost of doing business in Hawaii will rise substantially, bringing the price of a Hawaii vacation with it.
Dolan Eversole, UH Sea Grant Program coastal hazards extension agent and one of the authors of three newly released UH reports on climate change — including the one addressing its impact on the tourist industry — said the effort was aimed at summarizing the science in an easy-to-understand package and ultimately demystifying the topic.
“It becomes so overwhelming,” Eversole said of climate change. “Some people just throw up their arms and say, ‘We’re screwed — there’s nothing we can do.’ But there’s a lot we can do to start preparing.”
Eversole said that while climate change, driven by a rise in greenhouse gases, is already underway, the tipping point for major problems may not be seen for 20, 30 or 50 years.
“It’s like a freight train,” Eversole said. “We can see it coming. Are we going to be ready?”
One of the biggest challenges for the state and its tourism industry in the coming decades will be dealing with sea level rise. Because nearly all of Hawaii’s hotels are located near the shore, the resorts can expect to be under increasing attack from flooding and storm surges, according to the report.
“We have a very steep hill to climb to get on top of this problem,” said UH associate dean and geology professor Charles Fletcher, one of dozens of experts who contributed to the report.
Some Hawaii beaches will erode by 50 feet or more by midcentury, Fletcher said, and some beaches will disappear.
Because beaches are one of Hawaii’s major tourist attractions, their loss would have a dramatic economic impact on the visitor sector, according to the report.
Increasingly, Hawaii will be faced with the choice of either armoring its shorelines to protect hotels and other buildings and risk losing even more sandy shorelines, or conducting a managed and potentially costly retreat from the coast to maintain healthy sand beaches.
As time goes by, Waikiki and other low-lying coastal regions will be under greater pressure from rising seas, Fletcher said, and Waikiki Beach may reach a point where it will have to undergo constant sand replenishment in order for it to even exist. And that isn’t cheap: The last Waikiki sand nourishment program in 2012 cost $4.5 million.
But it might cost more to ignore the Waikiki sand loss, the report said. A 2008 economic impact analysis of the potential complete erosion of Waikiki Beach suggests the economic impact on hotel revenues could be as much as $661.2 million annually, with hotel industry job losses of 6,352 and lost visitor expenditures reaching nearly $2 billion.
As for the longer term?
Current research suggests that global sea level will rise about 3 feet by the time the 21st century comes to a close, Fletcher said.
“By the end of the century, I would be surprised if Waikiki Beach is still there,” he said.
At some point, Oahu’s tourist mecca may have to pick up and move, establishing a new “Waikiki Beach” on higher ground on a different coast where sand is more plentiful, Fletcher said.
In the meantime, he said, Hawaii needs a more comprehensive beach management program to save as many beaches as possible. Such a program would meet the crisis head on rather than reacting only in times of emergency. The state’s current coastal lands program, under the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, is too underfunded to do anything else, he said.
Here are some of the other climate change-related problems outlined in the report, along with some suggested adaption strategies:
–Higher energy costs from increasing demand on cooling systems due to warmer temperatures.
More energy efficiency is needed, including the installation of devices that allow for cooling and lighting only when a room is occupied, the use of energy-efficient appliances, using alternative fuels and renewable energy, and accelerating the maintenance and cleaning of heating, cooling and refrigeration equipment.
–A decline in the popularity of outdoor activities due to the deterioration of the environment, plants and animals. Hiking, biking, camping, picnicking, horseback-riding and bird-watching will suffer from loss in quantity and diversity of plant and animal species.
What’s needed are support programs that control invasive species, reintroduce native plants, provide educational activities and maintain trails, among other things.
–A decline in the popularity of snorkeling, fishing and scuba diving because of rising ocean temperature and acidification leading to coral bleaching, algal blooms, and invasive coral and fish species.
Environmental and human pressures on coral reefs need to be reduced. The report suggests protecting larger areas, promoting different kinds of water activities in different locations, tightening controls and regulations of the marine environment, and reducing pollution and agricultural runoff.
–A decline in the freshwater supply and rise in water prices due to lack of rainfall and stream flow and more drought.
Businesses should use water conservation techniques and fixtures and best practices in the maintenance of gardens and pools. Restaurant and hotel kitchens could invest in efficient dishwashers and ice makers and apply flow-control regulators at sinks and basins.
Golf courses will be hit hard. Superintendents should monitor soil moisture to control and optimize water use, reducing playing surfaces and excessive irrigation, and/or change turf to less-water-demanding or salt-tolerant species.
An increase in the cost of infrastructure repair and insurance costs because of the growing intensity of extreme weather due to warmer seas, plus a decline in tourist numbers attributed to the storms. “These events are expected to increase the chances of visitors experiencing death, injury and suffering” and will prompt visitors to consider other destinations, the report said.
Regular maintenance and major upgrades are needed in anticipation of extreme weather.
Eversole, who serves as Pacific islands regional coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Storms Program, urged government officials to fold climate change impacts into hazard mitigation planning and other community planning documents. Scientists have been talking to Hawaii officials about climate change for some time, he said, and planners here are beginning to make that happen.
“Previously, we would hear, ‘So what?'” Eversole said of the education efforts. “Now we’re hearing, ‘So now what?'”