Rising Temperatures

WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW?

2019 was the hottest year ever recorded on O‘ahu, featuring the hottest day ever recorded in Honolulu’s history. The last five years have seen peak average annual temperatures years across all islands. Temperatures are increasing by 0.3°F every decade, at four times the rate of half a century ago. In 2015-2016, it was so hot in Honolulu that emergency public service announcements were issued to curtail escalating air conditioning use because it stressed the electrical grid. It was an El Niño (ENSO) year. Strong ENSO years bring more hot days, intense rains, windless days, active hurricane seasons, and spikes in sea surface temperature. ENSO events are naturally occurring, but their frequency and intensity are worsened by climate change since they are caused by warmer sea surface temperatures and weak winds. This creates a positive feedback loop of irregular weather patterns.

Since the 1950's, temperatures in Hawai‘i have been consistently above the historical average and are continuing to increase, Photo by NOAA State Climate Summaries

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR HAWAI‘I?

Hawai‘i has lost 1.5 million acres of native forests. Hawaii’s forests are natural water and climate regulators. Without them, we are seeing disruptions in weather and temperature patterns. In other words, climate change and forest loss are working together to make Hawai‘i drier and hotter.

Invasive species are winning the war. Hotter summers make it easy for fast-growing invasive species like Californian shrubs and grasses to gain a foothold and outgrow our native tree species. On Maui, you may have noticed more grasslands where shady, wet forests used to be. These grasses and shrubs are not only outcompeting our beloved ʻōhiʻa, they are increasing the risk of wildfire.

We are losing as much land to wildfires as California. Worsened by climate change, these fires don’t just cost us our land. They harm our fragile ecosystems, spread disease, degrade air quality, cause landslides, and destroy valuable resources and infrastructure.

Warming waters are harming sea life. Warmer water means less oxygen in the water, making it hard for corals and beneficial algae to survive. In turn, the creatures that depend on them suffer as well. Our tourism and fishing industries depend on the health of these creatures because they represent food and shelter to our economically important fish species. Just think – how will tourism be affected if there are no colorful fish for snorkelers to see?

Higher temperatures are causing more extreme weather events. Increases in sea surface temperatures are causing increases in the frequency and intensity of El Niño years. These cause irregular weather patterns like drought, heavy rainstorms, and intense tropical storms.

A helicopter circles a wildfire on Kaua‘i, where these fires are becoming increasingly common during drier summer months, Photo by Brian Howell, Flickr Commons

WHAT'S COMING?

In Hawai‘i, average temperatures could increase by as much as 5 – 7.5° F by the end of the century. We can expect this to severely affect our communities, ecosystems, and economy. Hawaii’s coral reefs alone bring in $385 billion a year. 40% of our reefs could be lost by 2100 because of warming seas, which will affect tourism. The economic and public health risks of a changing climate will make certain people –children, the elderly, and economically disadvantaged– especially vulnerable.