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Hawaii’s Beaches Face Grim Future

November 16, 2009

All across the islands of Hawaii, residents have stood by and watched helplessly for years as the majestic archipelago’s sandy white beaches have steadily retreated “” a phenomenon that geologists warn will likely worsen in the coming decades as warming global temperatures bring rising sea levels around the world.

According to the Associated Press, experts say that over 70 percent of the island Kauai’s pristine beaches are on the decline while Oahu has already seen roughly a quarter of its sandy oceanfront disappear.

According to Dolan Eversole, coastal geologist at the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant program, there’s really not a lot to be done at this point.

“It will probably have occurred to a scale that we will have only been able to save a few places and maintain beaches, and the rest are kind of a write-off,” Eversole told AP.

But for a state that is accustomed to raking in over $11 billion annually in tourist receipts “” constituting roughly a third of the state’s economy “” the disappearance of its famed beaches presents a dilemma that is more than aesthetic in nature.

Tourism to the islands has already dropped by about 15 percent in the first six months of 2009 thanks to an ailing economy, while state jobless rates have hit a 31-year-high “” statistics that already have a number of officials in the Aloha state contemplating the long-term economic impact vanishing beaches a bit more seriously.

University of Hawaii geologist Chip Fletcher is not convinced that the current phenomenon of disappearing beaches is the result of man-made global warming.  On the contrary, he says that the erosion now being experienced by the islands is a result of a number of factors, including a rise in sea levels that began well over a hundred years ago.

According to Fletcher, we haven’t yet had time to observe the effects of current changes in climate patterns, which some predict will raise sea levels by roughly 3 to 9 feet over the next century.

Fletcher estimates that overall somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the U.S.’s coastlines are currently eroding and that the problem is just particularly pronounced in Hawaii due its heavy economic reliance on its beaches.

State officials in Hawaii are already scrambling to develop plans to preserve and rejuvenate the state’s tourist magnets.

In Waikiki, officials have proposed a plan to spend between $2 and $3 million in conjunction with local hotels to pump sand from offshore back onto the heavily tourist-trodden beaches.

According to Sam Lemmo, administrator of the state’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, a number of the state’s quickly disappearing beaches “” such as Ewa Beach and Lanikai “” would have to be abandoned because they already lined with protective seawalls and are heavily eroded.

Seawalls, though necessary to protect private and state property located near the ocean’s edge, also have the adverse effect of accelerating erosion by prohibiting tide waters from reaching the sand needed to replenish the beaches.

Experts in coastal management from the University of Hawaii’s Sea Grant group are also collaborating with consultants to help iron out a sustainable development plan for Kailua that would be able to cope with a 1 meter sea level rise.

Fletcher says that a strategy of “triage” would likely be the best approach for dealing with Kailua, which is packed with luxury homes but currently has no seawalls.  He favors a plan that would utilize a state land conservation fund to purchase beachfront property and allow the beach to simply expand inland rather than erecting seawalls.

Fletcher believes that a critical juncture for this community will come when erosion begins to hit heavy and local residents start demanding a protective seawall.

“That will be a very important moment,” he told AP.

“If we allow the first home to put up a seawall, then we’re probably dooming the entire beach over the course of a couple of decades . . . Ultimately the beach will disappear.”

The other option, Fletcher explained, is to select certain sections of beach to be saved and act preemptively to preserve them.

Only time will tell how this community and others across the state will respond to what seems an inevitable crisis.

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