As an island state, Hawaii needs to take heed of the newest paper published by Dr. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first warned Congress of global climate change back in 1988.
Twenty-eight years later, his warnings are more dire than ever, based upon better computer modeling, an improved understanding of climate and observations in nature. “Effects seem to be showing one or two decades earlier in the real world than in our model,” he said.
As Honolulu developers pour millions into building up the low-lying Kakaako neighborhood, and Kauai County pushes for the reconstruction of Coco Palms and expensive road projects within the Kapaa flood zone, Hansen is warning of increasingly dangerous superstorms and the prospect of “a sea level rise of several meters [causing] the loss of all coastal cities” within the next 50 years.
As the New York Times reported:
The paper identifies a specific mechanism that the scientists say they believe could help cause such an abrupt climate shift.
Their idea is that the initial melting of the great ice sheets will put a cap of relatively fresh water on the ocean surfaces near Antarctica and Greenland. That, they think, will slow or even shut down the system of ocean currents that redistributes heat around the planet and allows some of it to escape into space. Warmth will then accumulate in the deeper parts of the ocean, the scientists think, speeding the melting of parts of the ice sheets that sit below sea level.
The climate change ramifications for Hawaii are potentially huge, considering how much infrastructure — ports, refineries, power plants, highways, resorts, cities, homes, airports — are built on the coast. Then there's the impact on tourism — the state's main economic driver — and agriculture.
I recently interviewed Dr. Chip Fletcher, a UH-Manoa geology professor and associate dean who has done extensive research on climate change in Hawaii. Frankly, the situation as he outlined it is rather bleak.
“Hawaii is experiencing already, and will continue to experience, several forms of climate change,” he said. These include a warmer atmosphere, with the subsequent possibility of dangerous heat waves, such as those that have killed people 140,000 around the world since 2000. “Now we're seeing changes in wind patterns, increased temperatures and record-setting daily temperatures” in the Islands, he said, and "2015 saw an almost total collapse of the trade winds."
“We have seen a decline in rainfall over the past century, and over the past 30 years, an acceleration of the rate of decline,” he said. Models predict less rain in the winter season, and an expanded dry season. And rainfall is likely to be more intense, which increases the possibility of urban flooding and soil erosion, which results in more sedimentation of reefs and estuaries.
Hawaii is also seeing a decline in stream flow fed by ground water, which is “probably related to the decline in precipitation at higher elevations,” he said. This has serious implications for agriculture and ecosystems, which are more susceptible to invasive species when stressed.
Then there's storminess. “As we move into a warmer future, we're going to see more El Ninos taking place, and they'll be stronger," he said. "With stronger El Ninos, we are increasingly vulnerable to tropical cyclones and hurricanes.”
"These climate change factors of increased precipitation, increased tropical cyclones, sea level rise, warming atmosphere – they really sort of thread their way through every aspect of our lives, from food production to urban living to transportation," Fletcher continued. "The problem is very detailed and very deep."
"There's a lot to do, it's going to be expensive and we need to prepare ourselves. This does paint an extremely grim picture, and unfortunately, people don't get it," he continued.
"If we fail to successfully achieve the Paris accord and keep our global temperatures below 2 degrees C, we're looking at a failure of the planet. This is a very grim situation and for some reason the message just has not translated out of the scientific research world into the world of politics and economics and human society."
And now Hansen is saying even a 2-degree increase may be too much.
Meanwhile, data from NASA show that February 2016 was the warmest month since global temperature-keeping began — beating a record set in January 2016.
The annual growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa Observatory also jumped by 3.05 parts per million during 2015, the largest year-to-year increase in 56 years of research.
NASA reports Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA's Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, as saying:
“Carbon dioxide levels are increasing faster than they have in hundreds of thousands of years. It’s explosive compared to natural processes.”
So now what?
“I doubt we have passed the point of no return, but frankly, we are not certain of that,” Hansen says in a video.
I have hope," Fletcher said. "I have to have hope. I've got a family and I love Hawaii and I love our society. But I despair at the same time that we are moving into a future that's so potentially dark. The world's changing. Let's try and do what we can to make that change as painless and rapid as possible. It's going to be a different world. Wherever we can, let's make it a better world."