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Community Resilience: Is Hawai‘i ready for the impacts from climate change?

by Hawai'i Sea Grant

Dr. Bradley Romine is used to his phone ringing off the hook whenever unusually large swells hit parts of Oahu. Romine, a University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program (Hawai‘i Sea Grant) coastal hazards extension specialist seconded to the State of Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands (DLNR OCCL), is one of the first people homeowners turn to when the waves start lapping at their door and threatening the stability of their beachfront homes.  

This was especially true in early 2014 when at least a dozen homes on Oahu’s famed North Shore were in jeopardy of being overwhelmed by the pounding surf when the ocean began eroding their foundations and damaging lanais (patios) and other structures.


Romine assisted homeowners to obtain permits for dune restoration projects and the provision of “soft” alternatives to building seawalls, which have had serious negative impacts to beaches and public shoreline access. But what will happen in the future when the impacts of high surf and high tides are exacerbated by increasing rates of sea-level rise; levels for which the best available science is telling us could be 1 foot or more by 2050, and over three feet by 2100? The homeowners were lucky this time around and, although it was a close call, none of the structures were permanently damaged or lost.


To help plan for the increasing impacts of coastal hazards, Hawai‘i Sea Grant applied for funding through NOAA’s Regional Coastal Resilience Grants Program and was awarded $845,160 for a three-year project which began in May 2016. The project, titled “Building Resilience to Coastal Hazards and Climate Change in Hawai‘i,” aims to help communities in Hawai‘i reduce their vulnerability to natural hazards and climate change. 

The state’s communities and economy are highly vulnerable to flooding, coastal erosion, sea-level rise, and coastal disasters since most of the development and infrastructure is concentrated on low-lying coasts. In addition, the project will leverage and inform ongoing planning efforts already underway, including the development of a statewide Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report under the HawaiÊ»i Climate Adaptation Initiative (State Act 83, 2014).


“The year 2015 was a stark reminder of Hawai‘i’s vulnerability to coastal hazards after a record-setting hurricane season, and massive El-Niño fueled winter surf caused damage to our coastal communities” Dr. Romine noted. “The frequency and severity of coastal erosion and flooding events are only going to increase in the coming decades with climate change and sea-level rise, so improving coastal community resilience makes sense for the present and the future.”

To succeed, Dr. Romine understands how critical it is to engage many other state and local agencies and community groups in this effort. Under the newly formed Hawai‘i Sea Grant Center for Coastal and Climate Science and Resilience, he has developed strong partnerships with the State of HawaiÊ»i Department of Land and Natural Resources, State of HawaiÊ»i Office of Planning, county planning departments, Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System, University of HawaiÊ»i School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, and the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center. 

As time goes on he expects more and more groups to join in the effort, both within and outside the university, to come up with the most effective solutions to the suite of complicated issues brought on by climate change, sea-level rise, and associated natural hazards.


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