There’s ‘no place on the planet’ — not even Hawaii — to escape climate change, experts say

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A strong storm hitting Hawaii has knocked out power, brought down tree branches, flooded coastal roads and even brought snow. (Feb. 11)
AP

When it gets cold every winter, Hawaii becomes an increasingly popular retreat.

But climate experts in the Aloha State told USA TODAY on Monday that tourists cannot escape climate change — not even on the islands, where 60-foot waves and wind gusts up to 191 mph were part of a fierce weekend storm that downed power lines and felled trees.

“There’s no place on the planet where (people) can expect to see conditions as they have been in the past,” said Chip Fletcher, an earth sciences professor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and vice chair of the Honolulu Climate Change Commission. 

From travelers to hotel businesses, Fletcher said everyone should factor climate change into their planning because extreme weather events will increase everywhere. On Sunday, for example, the Hawaii Tourism Authority advised visitors not to go hiking, swimming, snorkeling and surfing because of dangerous conditions.

This weekend’s damaging storm, Fletcher said, is a good example of an extreme weather event that is more likely to occur in a warmer world. Climate change set up the conditions for the extreme waves, as well as what officials said could be the lowest-elevation snowfall ever recorded in the state. 

More: Potent storm slams Hawaii with 191-mph winds, 60-foot waves and rare snow on Maui

More: Big waves as Hurricane Hector passes Hawaii

“We’re going to be dealing with this much, much more in the future with our changing climate,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said at a Sunday press conference, Hawaii News Now reported.

Effects of climate change in Hawaii include increases in the number of wildfires, sea surface and air temperatures, coastal erosion and extreme rain, Fletcher said. The state has also set new records in the occurrence of tropical cyclones and recorded more hurricanes, such as 2018’s Lane and Hector, in surrounding waters, he added.

In 24 hours, nearly 50 inches of rain fell in Kauai last April, causing flooding and setting a record for the United States. High ocean temperatures caused extreme coral bleaching throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago in 2015. The Honolulu tide gauge has also recorded a rising sea level since the beginning of the 20th century, Fletcher said.

More than 9,950,000 visitors came to Hawaii in 2018, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority. 

“Just like it affects all the residents here that depend on a healthy reef, healthy ocean, and our mountains and rain forests that capture our fresh water, those are the same things that our tourists depend on,” said Josh Stanbro, executive director of Honolulu’s Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency.

A rise in the sea level also threatens Hawaii’s beaches, Stanbro said. Bigger storm surge and putting up sea walls to protect property causes beach loss or erosion. In Waikiki, for example, Stanbro said workers already bring in new sand to maintain the beach. 

As residents of Hawaii don’t move often and tend to have a close connection with nature, Stanbro said they see the effects of climate change. In Honolulu County, which covers all of Oahu, 82 percent of residents in a 2018 survey acknowledged global warming.

Honolulu residents voted in 2016 to create Stanbro’s office, tasked with addressing climate change. On a state level, Hawaii has a carbon-neutral goal by 2045. It has also committed to the goals of the Paris climate agreement in state legislation.

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