The U.S. Pacific Islands are culturally and environmentally diverse, treasured by the 1.9 million people who call them home. Pacific islands are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts due to their exposure and isolation, small size, low elevation (in the case of atolls), and concentration of infrastructure and economy along the coasts.
A prevalent cause of year-to-year changes in climate patterns around the globe and in the Pacific Islands region is the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The El Niño and La Niña phases of ENSO can dramatically affect precipitation, air and ocean temperature, sea surface height, storminess, wave size, and trade winds. It is unknown exactly how the timing and intensity of ENSO will continue to change in the coming decades, but recent climate model results suggest a doubling in frequency of both El Niño and La Niña extremes in this century as compared to the 20th century under scenarios with more warming, including the higher scenario (RCP8.5).
On islands, all natural sources of freshwater come from rainfall received within their limited land areas. Severe droughts are common, making water shortage one of the most important climate-related risks in the region. As temperature continues to rise and cloud cover decreases in some areas, evaporation is expected to increase, causing both reduced water supply and higher water demand. Streamflow in Hawai‘i has declined over approximately the past 100 years, consistent with observed decreases in rainfall.
The impacts of sea level rise in the Pacific include coastal erosion, episodic flooding, permanent inundation, heightened exposure to marine hazards, and saltwater intrusion to surface water and groundwater systems. Sea level rise will disproportionately affect the tropical Pacific and potentially exceed the global average.
Invasive species, landscape change, habitat alteration, and reduced resilience have resulted in extinctions and diminished ecosystem function. Inundation of atolls in the coming decades is projected to impact existing on-island ecosystems. Wildlife that relies on coastal habitats will likely also be severely impacted. In Hawaiʻi, coral reefs contribute an estimated $477 million to the local economy every year. Under projected warming of approximately 0.5°F per decade, all nearshore coral reefs in the Hawai‘i and Pacific Islands region will experience annual bleaching before 2050. An ecosystem-based approach to international management of open ocean fisheries in the Pacific that incorporates climate-informed catch limits is expected to produce more realistic future harvest levels and enhance ecosystem resilience.
Indigenous communities of the Pacific derive their sense of identity from the islands. Emerging issues for Indigenous communities of the Pacific include the resilience of marine-managed areas and climate-induced human migration from their traditional lands. The rich body of traditional knowledge is place-based and localized and is useful in adaptation planning because it builds on intergenerational sharing of observations. Documenting the kinds of governance structures or decision-making hierarchies created for management of these lands and waters is also important as a learning tool that can be shared with other island communities.
Across the region, groups are coming together to minimize damage and disruption from coastal flooding and inundation as well as other climate-related impacts. Social cohesion is already strong in many communities, making it possible to work together to take action. Early intervention can lower economic, environmental, social, and cultural costs and reduce or prevent conflict and displacement from ancestral land and resources.
Hawai‘i and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands: Key Messages
- Water Supplies
Dependable and safe water supplies for Pacific island communities and ecosystems are threatened by rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, sea level rise, and increased risk of extreme drought and flooding. Islands are already experiencing saltwater contamination due to sea level rise, which is expected to catastrophically impact food and water security, especially on low-lying atolls. Resilience to future threats relies on active monitoring and management of watersheds and freshwater systems.
- Ecosystems & Biodiversity
Pacific island ecosystems are notable for the high percentage of species found only in the region, and their biodiversity is both an important cultural resource for island people and a source of economic revenue through tourism. Terrestrial habitats and the goods and services they provide are threatened by rising temperatures, changes in rainfall, increased storminess, and land-use change. These changes promote the spread of invasive species and reduce the ability of habitats to support protected species and sustain human communities. Some species are expected to become extinct and others to decline to the point of requiring protection and costly management.
- Coastal Communities
The majority of Pacific island communities are confined to a narrow band of land within a few feet of sea level. Sea level rise is now beginning to threaten critical assets such as ecosystems, cultural sites and practices, economies, housing and energy, transportation, and other forms of infrastructure. By 2100, increases of 1–4 feet in global sea level are very likely, with even higher levels than the global average in the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands. This would threaten the food and freshwater supply of Pacific island populations and jeopardize their continued sustainability and resilience. As sea level rise is projected to accelerate strongly after mid-century, adaptation strategies that are implemented sooner can better prepare communities and infrastructure for the most severe impacts.
- Marine Resources
Fisheries, coral reefs, and the livelihoods they support are threatened by higher ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. Widespread coral reef bleaching and mortality have been occurring more frequently, and by mid-century these events are projected to occur annually, especially if current trends in emissions continue. Bleaching and acidification will result in loss of reef structure, leading to lower fisheries yields and loss of coastal protection and habitat. Declines in oceanic fishery productivity of up to 15% and 50% of current levels are projected by mid-century and 2100, respectively, under the higher scenario (RCP8.5).
- Indigenous Peoples
Indigenous peoples of the Pacific are threatened by rising sea levels, diminishing freshwater availability, and shifting ecosystem services. These changes imperil communities’ health, well-being, and modern livelihoods, as well as their familial relationships with lands, territories, and resources. Built on observations of climatic changes over time, the transmission and protection of traditional knowledge and practices, especially via the central role played by Indigenous women, are intergenerational, place-based, localized, and vital for ongoing adaptation and survival.
- Impacts & Adaptation
Climate change impacts in the Pacific Islands are expected to amplify existing risks and lead to compounding economic, environmental, social, and cultural costs. In some locations, climate change impacts on ecological and social systems are projected to result in severe disruptions to livelihoods that increase the risk of human conflict or compel the need for migration. Early interventions, already occurring in some places across the region, can prevent costly and lengthy rebuilding of communities and livelihoods and minimize displacement and relocation.
The “Hawai‘i and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands” publication is available as a downloadable PDF at nca2018.globalchange.gov.