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Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

Climate Change Impacts to the U.S. Pacific and Arctic Coasts: Research

Low-lying areas of tropical Pacific islands

Residents in the northern part of the capital city of Majuro in the Marshall Islands watch as their neighborhood floods with seawater during a king tide. This high tide followed flooding from storm surge earlier that day (March 3, 2014). Photo by Karl Fellenius, University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant.

In March 2014, USGS instruments recorded an unexpected combination of unusually high tides and large 5-meter swells that flooded many areas within the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands president issued a state of emergency and press release: “This week’s king tides were the worst that the Marshall Islands has experienced in over 30 years, and the third time the capital Majuro has flooded in the last year alone.” Such events historically occurred every few decades—but now they are occurring multiple times a decade. Saltwater can flood natural inland depressions, such as freshwater ponds where taro grows. USGS research hydrologist Stephen Gingerich has seen islanders frantically digging long trenches out to the ocean to attempt to drain the seawater before it kills their crops.

Issue

The rise in sea level has far surpassed the 2007 estimate from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and could reach 2 meters within this century. Human populations are generally concentrated along coastlines, and people on low-lying islands in the Pacific are at particular risk since they cannot move to higher elevations. With a cultural history going back hundreds of years in these islands, inhabitants would not want simply to leave.

Photograph of waves in the Marshall Islands.

Large swells from the north-northeast with heights up to 5 meters (16 feet) combined with unusually high tides inundated much of the Republic of the Marshall Islands on March 2, 2014. Photograph by Peter Swarzenski, USGS.

Photograph of the city of Honolulu.

The city of Honolulu on Oahu is a good example demonstrating how much city infrastructure will be afflicted by rising sea levels. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Some of these islands have average elevations of only 2 meters above sea level and are exposed to waves as high as 5 to 7 meters most winters. Coral reefs surrounding these islands provide an important natural barrier that dissipates the destructive energy from large waves, but this protection will decline as sea-level rise outpaces reef growth. The effects of storm waves coupled with sea-level rise will exacerbate flooding problems, but these effects have generally not been incorporated into climate change projections Furthermore, the islands’ shallow, freshwater aquifers can be contaminated by a rise in sea level and subsequent saltwater flooding, which can also destroy most of the agricultural and habitable lands located in low-lying areas.

Map of the Pacific Islands.

Knowing what is possible to protect can save time and money for individuals, planners, and government officials. Many islands in the Pacific Ocean are part of the U.S (such as Hawaii), are U.S. territories (for example, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Jarvis Island, American Samoa), or fall under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of the Interior (U.S. Office of Insular Affairs) and the Department of Defense because they are part of the Compact of Free Association (for example, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia). The Republic of the Marshall Islands has collected meteorological and oceanographic data on rising seas for several decades—data that can help researchers determine what might happen to other islands around the world. Which islands are immediately threatened? Which have more time to plan for sea-level rise? USGS research can tackle those questions that ultimately help world leaders set priorities for their own nations and understand the potential consequences of an influx of climate change refugees from other nations.

Underwater photograph of the directional wave gauge and current profiler.

A directional wave gauge and current profiler (yellow) can be seen in this image of the fore reef of Roi Namur on Kwajalein Atoll. Photo by Curt Storlazzi, USGS.

What the USGS is doing

An increase in wave-driven flooding is expected to affect areas of human habitation and agriculture on islands in the Pacific. To determine how climate change will alter the size and direction of ocean waves, and how far the waves might travel over coral reefs to flood inland areas and infiltrate freshwater aquifers, the USGS is studying 25 Pacific islands. The data they collect will help validate oceanographic models of future wind and wave action in the studied regions.

USGS has deployed instruments on the beach, along various parts of the reef, and in groundwater wells on the island of Roi-Namur, on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, to record wave-driven flood events over a long period of time. Kwajalein Atoll is one of the largest atolls in the world, and the U.S. Army’s Reagan Test Site located here will be a test case for modeling flood scenarios for other Pacific islands.

Installation of a wave/tide gauge.

USGS Curt Storlazzi attaches a wave/tide gauge on the shallow reef flat adjacent to shore on Kwajalein Atoll. Photo by Kurt Rosenberger, USGS.

USGS researchers measure the waves, tides, currents, temperature, salinity, and run-up levels (distance inland that waves travel). An important feature vulnerable to waves is an island’s fresh groundwater “lens.” Normally, this underground freshwater floats on top of denser seawater. Large storm waves can wash over the island, leaving saltwater on top of the freshwater lens. Researchers want to know: How long will it take for the saltwater to percolate downward and contaminate the island’s freshwater supply? How long before rainfall can replenish and purify the freshwater?

Cross section of an island’s freshwater lens (blue), showing that when seawater (green) floods it, 15 months or longer may pass before the heavier salt water settles to the bottom and eventually mixes out of the system to make it drinkable. Learn more...

Studying the island’s groundwater can help researchers isolate and project the effects of large storms. Analyzing the water’s geochemistry can provide insights into the groundwater’s “age,” contaminants, and how quickly water flushes through the system. Because saltwater conducts electricity better than freshwater, USGS researchers also measure the electrical resistivity of the water in groundwater wells to better understand how the “lens” reacts to tides and wave-driven flooding.

Creating new, high-resolution bathymetric maps from satellite imagery, and topographic maps from terrestrial lidar data, has enabled USGS to generate maps to a resolution of a centimeter or less. Mapping an island with high-precision tools reveals more details about what happens as waves move from deep water to the shallow regions of the coast and up onto the land, and allows for more accurate modeling of future climatic effects on atolls.

Read about a project focused on climate change and sea-level rise on atolls that house Department of Defense property.

What the USGS has learned

Photograph of homes and street in Majuro in 2014 following a king tide.

High waves coupled with king tides hit the Jable side of Majuro in the Marshall Islands in October 2014, and damaged homes and agriculture—an event that has become more frequent in low-lying atolls. Photo by Karl Fellenius, University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant. [Larger version]

Modeling by USGS researchers and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows that climate changes during the 21st century will alter the strength and direction of the highest waves and strongest winds across U.S. and U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands. For example, extreme wave heights will increase until the middle of the 21st century and then decrease toward the end of the century.  A recent USGS report gives detailed projections that will help communities, engineers, and natural-resource managers prepare for resulting shifts in flooding threats to their particular areas.

Modeling by USGS scientists and colleagues at the Deltares institute in the Netherlands shows that climate change may reduce the ability of coral reefs to protect tropical islands against wave attack, erosion, and saltwater contamination of freshwater resources. Healthy coral reefs have rough surfaces and complex structures that slow incoming waves. But climate-change effects, including ocean acidification, coral bleaching, and smothering by sediment stirred up by waves, threaten reefs. As coral reefs decay, they become smoother, inhibiting their ability to dissipate wave energy. It is expected that smoother reefs combined with rising sea level will lead to increased flooding on land.

Another modeling effort by scientists with the USGS, Deltares, and the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo forecasts that waves will interact synergistically with sea-level rise, causing twice as much land to flood for a given future sea level than currently predicted by models that do not take wave-driven water levels into account. These changes mean that many atolls could be flooded every year and their freshwater supplies contaminated—forcing some inhabitants to abandon their homes in decades, rather than in centuries as previously thought.

News

To learn more about how climate change affects tropical Pacific Islands, please read:

Aerial photograph of Satawan Atoll, Chuuk State, Federated States of Micronesia showing low-lying atoll islets perched on the reef rim.  Photo by Chip Fletcher, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

“Many Atolls May be Uninhabitable Within Decades Due to Climate Change”
USGS news release, October 2015

“Climate Change Reduces Coral Reefs’ Ability to Protect Coasts”
USGS Sound Waves Newsletter article, September 2015

“The influence of coral reefs and climate change on wave-driven flooding of tropical coastlines”
USGS news release, July 2015

“Future Wave and Wind Effects on Pacific Islands—Projections Will Assist Planning for Climate Change”
USGS Sound Waves Newsletter article, May 2015

“USGS Scientist Briefs House Natural Resources Committee on How Future Waves and Winds Will Affect U.S. and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands”
USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center news highlight, April 2015

“Future Wave and Wind Effects on Pacific Islands”
USGS news release, January 2015

“Assessing the Vulnerability of Pacific Atolls to Climate Change: Collaboration by USGS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and University of Hawai‘i serendipitously captures a significant overwash event”
USGS Sound Waves Newsletter article, April 2014

“This Week at Interior December 12, 2014” video recap that includes a meeting on climate change in Pacific Island countries
U.S. Department of the Interior, December 2014

“United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Flash Update 2 - Marshall Islands & Kiribati | King Tides”
reliefweb, March 2014

“Storm Surges, Rising Seas Could Doom Pacific Islands This Century”
Scientific American, April 2013

“New Sea-Level-Rise Modeling Forecasts Major Climate Impact to Low-Lying Pacific Islands”
Storify summary, April 2013

“New model of sea level rise accounts for splash in the bath”
American Geophysical Union (AGU) GeoSpace blog, December 2012

“Rising Seas”
New York Times, March 2014

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Who’s involved:

A team of 25 scientists led by Curt Storlazzi

Partners include:

Publications:

Identification and classification of very-low frequency waves on a coral reef flat - Journal of Geophysical Research-Oceans 121, October 2016

Changes to extreme wave climates of islands within the Western Tropical Pacific throughout the 21st century under RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5, with implications for island vulnerability - Global and Planetary Change, v. 141, June 2016

Observations of wave transformation over a fringing coral reef and the importance of low-frequency waves and offshore water levels to runup, overwash, and coastal flooding - Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, v. 121, May 2016

Many Atolls May be Uninhabitable Within Decades Due to Climate Change
Nature Scientific Reports 5:14546,September 2015

The influence of coral reefs and climate change on wave-driven flooding of tropical coastlines
Geophysical Research Letters 42, August 2015

Future Wave and Wind Projections for United States and United States-Affiliated Pacific Islands
USGS Open-File Report 2015-1001, January 2015

The effectiveness of coral reefs for coastal hazard risk reduction and adaptation
Nature Communications, May 2014

Forecasting the Impact of Storm Waves and Sea-Level Rise on Midway Atoll and Laysan Island
USGS Open-File Report 2013-1069, April 2013

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