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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 16, 2001

Sunday Focus
Will global warming put Waikiki under water?

If sea levels rose in Waikiki, low-lying areas could be covered in water. Areas shaded in black would be covered by a 1.3-foot rise in sea level; if waters rose 3.6 feet, the area in white would also be covered. This depiction is based on digital elevation model data.

Original image provided by University of Hawai'i Dept. of Urban and Regional Planning

 •  Hawaiian chain mostly under sea

By John Griffin
Former Advertiser editorial editor

I went down to Waikiki to help our economy and ended up thinking about Venice, global warming this century, and the more distant time when the Hawai'i we know will disappear near Japan.

Let me explain:

My wife and I stayed a night at the Halekulani Hotel to celebrate her birthday. It seemed like the patriotic as well as romantic thing to do.

Yes, central Waikiki remains over-cluttered with concrete. But the ocean views can be worth the price, if you've got it — surf sparkling with boards and canoes, the green flash at sunset as sea birds wing in, calling to one another.

Always more than worth it is the House Without a Key evening show on the seawall terrace with the trio playing hapa-haole songs and a hula dancer swaying in the light of a full moon rising behind Diamond Head.

I found myself thinking of contrasts, not just with the news of war and anthrax on the hotel room TV, but also the way Waikiki has so long sought with mixed results to balance the images of a modern urban resort with visitor dreams of a South Sea "paradise."

And somehow before falling asleep to the sound of the waves 11 floors below, I thought about speculation on what global warming and the melting of polar ice caps could mean for low-lying Waikiki.

A second night in Waikiki might have led to more relaxing thoughts. Anyway, the one we had was enough to set the stage for a workshop put on a few days later by the University of Hawai'i's department of urban and regional planning.

Global warming may still be controversial with the oil-oriented Bush administration. But the experts I trust most feel the oceans are slowly rising and may well continue to do so unless mankind takes more steps to reduce the "greenhouse effect" from CO2 and other gases of the industrial age.

Planner-professor Kem Lowry led several teams of us laymen through an exercise designed to cope with sea-level rise that could affect Waikiki in the next 40 years or so. We considered an extreme: a 3.6-foot rise in the ocean level, covering much of the resort area and inundating tourism as we know it.

So whither the wetland Waikiki of the possible future?

While we didn't produce any surefire solutions, these are some of the possibilities that emerged from our soggy minds:

• Head off global warming with international action to clean up the atmosphere. Since the greenhouse effect is a global phenomenon, this makes the most sense to the most people, including many planners, students and environmental activists.

Fine, but what if we can't get enough international cooperation (including from our own government and the American people) and temperatures and sea levels keep rising, threatening far more than just Waikiki? It may be too late already for some small islands.

• Let Waikiki slowly drown, going back to the duck ponds and swampland of the past, but without the great old beach. Some suggested the military might want it for something.

Meanwhile, a new Waikiki may emerge farther inland, presenting economic bonanzas, including raising the value of my modest view property on a Kaimuki hillside. Some in our group pictured new building possibilities as a silver lining of Waikiki warming. I fear that developers and politician friends would again try the 1960s efforts to build high-rise hotels on Diamond Head.

• Our group seemed smitten with the idea of Waikiki surviving as a kind of western Venice. Some suggested a Dutch solution of building dikes around the whole thing and using tides to generate power. But most leaned toward a Mediterranean-like acceptance of the inevitable, albeit with local innovations.

Although present beachside hotels might have to go, inundation maps show that small islands would still exist within Waikiki and others could be built, as in the Italian Venice, boat-buses would cruise lagoons and canals. (Some of us envisioned singing prostitutes in gondolas or other hookers scurrying about in kayaks or Jet-skis after their favored Japanese tourists.)

It's possible to make light of the danger of rising sea levels or to put off considering it amid more pressing priorities. But it could happen in damaging degree within the lifetimes of younger people in Hawai'i today.

And the impact here would be far beyond Waikiki. For example, Honolulu International Airport could also be under water along with much else that's essential or of high value, including beaches.

So my Waikiki stay and the UH workshop stressed for me the value of good long-range planning. And some may find comfort in the thought that the newest member of the planning department faculty is that all-out activist, UH President Evan Dobelle.

If he can straighten out the university, dealing with global warming should be a piece of haupia cake.

And finally, for those who want to really ponder long-range about our fate, there's the adjoining thought from my forthcoming novel.