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Climate Change Likely to Alter Hawaiʻi Surf Spots

July 21, 2019, 8:00 AM HST (Updated July 23, 2019, 11:40 AM)
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The adverse effects of climate change are expected to be more and more prevalent in the coming decades and Hawaiʻi is already taking steps to mitigate damage to coastal communities. Unfortunately, many of the best surf spots here in the islands—and throughout the world—may be at stake as rising sea levels create coastal flooding and shoreline erosion.

Earth’s atmosphere is currently saturated with the same carbon dioxide levels that were present during the Pliocene era some three to five million years ago. Back then, global sea levels rose to nearly 40 meters higher than they are now and average global temperatures increased by 3 to 4 °C. At the north and south poles, temperatures increased by 10 °C and the North African desert was a lush savanna.

Today’s climate change is likely to cause the following environmental changes:

  • sea level rise;
  • coastal flooding;
  • shoreline erosion;
  • increased rainfall;
  • storm surges;
  • ocean acidification;
  • coral reef bleaching;
  • water pollution;
  • warmer ocean temperatures.

What that means for surfers is their favored beach or surf break will likely change drastically in the next 30 years. Without a concerted effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise could destroy about 18% of California’s surf spots by the year 2100. In addition, an estimated 16% of the remaining locations could be worse for surfers and 5% could improve, according to a study cited by KalonSurf.com. Hawaiʻi is likely to see more significant impacts.

The study also reports that sea level rise will create new surf breaks and average swell sizes in Indonesia, Antarctica and Australia’s east coast. But even in locations where surf conditions improve, surfers are likely to see the other negative impacts of rising sea levels like water pollution and storm surges. These phenomena will likely make surf spots narrower and alter the relationship between  swells and tides.

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Some countries are doing more than others to mitigate the effects of climate change and, in the process, preserve their reputations as world-class surf destinations. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not one of them.

Since 2016, the U.S. has reversed its policy on climate change, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and deregulating the oil, gas and coal industries. In a recent report, 5 Countries Fighting Climate Change to Help Save Surfing published by KalonSurf.com, the U.S. ranked among the bottom five countries who are doing the least to fight climate change. However, some U.S. states are taking matters into their own hands to mitigate the effects of coastal erosion, including Hawaiʻi and other states with popular surf spots to protect. According to KalonSurf.com, the most popular surf destinations in the U.S. include:

  • California (San Clemente, Huntington Beach, La Jolla, Newport Beach, Malibu)
  • New York (90th Street Rockaways, Montauk)
  • Hawaiʻi (North Shore and Waikiki on Oʻahu, Peʻahi and Hoʻokipa on Maui, Hanalei Bay on Kauaʻi)

The countries behind the U.S. at the low end of the climate change-mitigating totem pole include Australia, South Africa, Indonesia and the Philippines.

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On the flip side, the five countries doing the most to fight climate change include:

  • Costa Rica
  • Morocco
  • Portugal
  • The United Kingdom
  • The Philippines

According to KalonSurf.com, the best ways for surfers (and the general public) to help fight climate change is to visit and/or surf in countries that are going green and reducing their carbon emissions. The website recommends supporting environmentally friendly surf brands like Firewire, Finisterre, Outerknown and Patagonia. People can also sidestep the commercial agriculture industry—a large contributor of greenhouse gases—by buying food from local farmers and reducing food waste.

Graphic courtesy of KalonSurf.com.

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