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Climate Change: Hawaii, Pacific & Caribbean Islands

Information from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, June, 2009

Island Populations are on the front line of change.

Small islands are considered to be among the most vulnerable environments for climate change. They can be impacted on all sides by sea level changes, coastal erosion, ocean storms, and contamination of their fresh water resources from salt water and human activity. The population of small islands is usually concentrated along the coastline placing people on the front line of most potential changes.

Islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean have experienced changes in both average air and sea surface temperature. In recent decades, temperatures and sea level have been rising and this trend is expected to continue.

Islands in the Caribbean are expected to experience a decrease in total rainfall but an increase in the frequency of heavy storm events such as hurricanes. Islands in the Pacific are expected to receive an increase in the frequency of heavy downpours, increased rainfall during summer months and an increase in typhoon activity.

Coral Reefs and Ecosystems at Risk
Coral reef
Climate changes affecting coastal and marine ecosystems will have major implications for tourism and fisheries. Coral reefs are particularly sensitive to the impacts of climate change as even small increases in water temperature can cause coral bleaching. Ocean acidification due to rising carbon dioxide levels poses an additional threat to coral reefs and rich ecosystems they support. Fisheries feed island people and island economies. Nearly 70 percent of the world's annual tuna harvest comes from the Pacific Ocean. Climate change is projected to cause a decline in tuna stocks and an eastward shift in their location. Photo copyright by iStockPhoto / A. Gingerich.

Coastal Impact From Sea-Level Rise & Storms
Hawaii flooding
Island communities, infrastructure, and ecosystems are vulnerable to coastal inundation due to sea-level rise and coastal storms. Flooding will become more frequent and coastal land will be permanently lost as the sea inundates low-lying areas and the shorelines erode. Loss of land will affect living things in coastal ecosystems. For example, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are low-lying and therefore at great risk from rising sea level, have a high concentration of threatened and endangered species, some of which exist nowhere else. Hurricanes and other storm events cause major impacts to island communities including loss of life, damage to infrastructure and other property, and contamination of freshwater supplies. With further warming, hurricane and typhoon peak wind intensities and rainfall are likely to increase, which, combined with sea-level rise, would cause higher storm surge levels. Photo copyright by iStockPhoto / Mphotoi.

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Map of Hawaii.
Climate change will have a number of severe impacts on Hawaii and the Caribbean. This page illustrates a number of the more significant impacts. Map by and MapResources..

Limited Freshwater Now, Even Less Later
Water shortage
The availability of freshwater is likely to be reduced, with significant implications for island communities, economies, and resources. Most island communities in the Pacific and Caribbean have limited sources of freshwater. Many islands depend on freshwater lenses below the surface, which are recharged by precipitation. Changes in precipitation, such as the significant decreases projected for the Caribbean, are thus a cause of great concern. Sea-level rise also affects islands water supplies by causing saltwater to contaminate the freshwater lens and by causing an increased frequency of flooding due to storm high tides. Water pollution (such as from agriculture or sewage), exacerbated by storms and floods, can contaminate freshwater supplies, affecting public health. Photo copyright by iStockPhoto / A. Autayeu.

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