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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, July 5, 2004

Rising sea swamping low islands

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Columnist

There are significant global climate issues that don't depend on whether you believe in global warming, and sea level rise is one of them.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the ocean level has come up 6 to 8 inches in the past century.

Most of the scientific community appears to agree with these statistics, although there are researchers who deny it, and suggest that any measured sea level rise is actually attributable to sinking land. When satellite-based — rather than land-based — sea level measurements have a sufficiently long history, that issue will be resolved.

Rising oceans — whether the result of subsiding land or actually rising waters — are issues for coastal land owners and public beaches, since higher seas move shorelines inland.

These are significant issues on several Hawaiian shorelines, particularly along eroding sand beaches on O'ahu and Maui, but they're not nearly the issues in the high Hawaiian islands that they are in lower islands across the Pacific.

Residents of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu are forced to consider relocation, as rising waters turn their wells salty and fill their taro-growing depressions with sea water.

In the low atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, there are islets and sandbars that are so low they regularly lose much of their land area. Often this happens seasonally, as it does on some main Hawaiian island beaches.

Disappearing Island at the southern end of French Frigate Shoals is one such. Some months it's there, and some months it's barely above water.

Things are worse for Whale-Skate Island at French Frigate Shoals.

"It was a great big island, with thousands of seabirds nesting on it. It was a regular nesting area for turtles, and lots of seals pupped there," said Beth Flint, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service's pacific Remote Island Refuges. Flint got her doctorate studying at French Frigate Shoals.

Whale-Skate had vegetation and considerable size, and then it began shrinking. Today, it's all water. The habitat for seals, birds and turtles is entirely gone.

Sea level rise could be involved, or currents, or unusual stormy weather, or more likely a combination, she said.

"We can't be sure why it's gone. It's hard to sort out all the variables. But it's certainly a reasonable assumption that climate change is involved. Sea level is rising," Flint said.

If you have a question or concern about the Hawaiian environment, drop a note to Jan TenBruggencate at P.O. Box 524, Lihu'e, HI 96766, e-mail jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or call (808) 245-3074.