In a Snapshot, “Sea” the Future Today

February 20, 2020 | 9:32 am
Hawaii Sea Grant
Cuong Tran & Diana Lopera

They say that a picture can speak a thousand words … but what if the picture could paint a future 10, 50, 100 years from now? And not just a future that’ll impact one person, but rather the future that will impact many. Through the eyes of concerned community members and the power of community science, we find that things may be closer than they appear. Using an online engagement tool, Hawaiʻi coastal planners and educators are able to convey a powerful message to the public about what a paradise underwater may look like.

Sea level rise is an ever-growing concern throughout today’s heavily urbanized coastal zones. In coastal states such as Florida and California, low lying areas are currently tasked with adapting or even retreating to extreme measures to cope with this climate crisis. Meanwhile, we in the Hawaiian islands are racing against the clock with sea level rise. Our state has not experienced the true devastation of sea level rise, but we have been encountering seasonal events of coastal flooding from high tides.

We anticipate Hawaiʻi has approximately until 2050 until one foot of sea level rise globally impacts our vulnerable coastline areas, in which we will experience its effects every single day. By 2100, sea level rise will cause the state over $19 billion in damages. Until then, we are getting a glimpse of what is to come through annual flooding from the King Tides.

Maunalua Bay, O’ahu. Saltwater infiltration on a parking lot. Excessive exposure to salt water and wave energy results in less resilient infrastructure and expensive repairs. Photo: Hawaii Sea Grant

King Tides are the highest high tides of the year. This natural phenomenon takes place when the sun, moon, and the Earth are in alignment, in which the gravitational pull of these celestial bodies is strongest. During King Tide events, we can clearly visualize how higher and stronger tides can affect many communities, both coastal and inland. Waves run up on infrastructure not built to withstand saltwater exposure, speeding up degradation and expensive maintenance. Shoreline business owners and homeowners are forced to spend money on sandbags and seawalls to mitigate flooding as water floods into their properties – which often do more harm than good. Seawater flows out of storm drains, flooding roads not found near the ocean coast. To most, King Tide events are temporary inconveniences that can be resolved with short-term solutions. To us, however, we see an opportunity to visualize how sea level rise is right around the corner, and to educate our local communities to make informed decisions about their future.

Hawaii Sea Grant, through the Hawaii and Pacific Islands King Tides Project, has organized and led workshops, talks, and outreach that contextualize what sea level rise looks like at a local level in the Pacific islands. This program utilizes photography and community science and asks volunteers to consider how today’s highest high tides are indicative of tomorrow’s average water level.

Waikiki Beach, O’ahu. Waves run up over Waikiki beach and sandbags are placed to protect property. Photo: Hawaii Sea Grant

We had the opportunity to learn from extension professionals at Hawaii Sea Grant about how to educate the public about King Tide events and compare them to future sea level rise during our Sea Level Rise and Community Science undergraduate internship. The Hawaiʻi and Pacific Islands King Tides Project, facilitated by the Hawaiʻi Sea Grant, is a community science project that captures snapshots of the coastlines of Pacific Island communities during King Tide events. During these King Tide events, Hawaiʻi Sea Grant provides community members a platform to submit their photos, as well as their personal observations of the place. This project allows community scientists to personally witness and document King Tide impacts through place-based photography, visualizing the vulnerability of coastlines at the local, state, and archipelagic scales in real time. We have families that have lived by these coastlines for generations, carrying with them a huge pool of knowledge about the environment around them.

Honokowai, Maui. Sea level rise gives more incentive for property owners to install sea walls. However, sea walls accelerate beach erosion. Do we choose to save the property or save the beach? Photo: Hawaii Sea Grant

Many communities still treat sea level rise as a problem for tomorrow, not realizing the small ripples of impact created today through King Tides or seasonal flooding. This project gives them a glimpse of what our future could look like if no action is taken now. One of the main goals of this project is to help community members make informed decisions about the fate of their coastlines and their futures. By capturing these events through the camera’s lens, we are able to visualize a problem that is not spatially or temporally distant.

The Hawaii and Pacific Islands King Tides Project’s vast collection of photos throughout the main Hawaiian islands serves to connect the realization of impact and pushes for policy that reflects the damage. For example, recently Hawaii Sea Grant  provided postcards with photos of King Tide events to K-12 students and asked them to write a message about what this meant for their future. These postcards were collected and given to the state and county officials that attended the 2nd annual Hawaiʻi Climate Change Conference this past January. These photos have also been featured in Hawaiʻi’s Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report and have been used by researchers to ground truth sea level rise models in Hawaiʻi.

Effective change requires collaboration. For the State of Hawaiʻi, the power of community science has not only educated tens of thousands of local residents but sparked a movement to become more proactive against climate change. New policy to limit new development along the coast, switch to 100% renewable energy by 2045, and plant 100,000 trees by 2035 is part of our initiative as a society and as a state.

Community science is a powerful tool, and we encourage everyone reading this post to create a program similar to the King Tides Project. Look for a problem or need in your community that you are passionate about and determine what message you want to communicate with your audience. Build connections with your local climate researchers, policy makers, and concerned citizens to build your project that is representative of the community it is trying to help. Lastly, make sure the results are brought back and made accessible to the community – bring it back to why you started the project in the first place.

Uniting everyone in your community is the first step in addressing climate change. We owe it to future generations to fix the mistakes of the past so that they don’t face the worst of the consequences to come. Educate your community, start a movement, and transform action into policy.

Cuong Tran: Raised in Lahaina, Maui, Cuong experienced King Tide events, devastating flooding, and the erosion of his favorite childhood beach. Cuong, a UH Mānoa graduate under the Global Environmental Science Program, is determined to lead Hawai‘i in becoming 100% renewable as well as bouncing forward to coastal and marine climate change impacts in the near distant future. Additionally, he plans to join opportunities that include environmental outreach for sustainable practices to the younger generations, to gain new knowledge on how to plan for climate change, and to conserve Hawai‘i’s resources for future generations.

Diana Lopera is an undergraduate student pursuing a BS in Global Environmental Science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She is interested in STEM outreach and education, particularly using the power of story-telling and narratives to communicate the science.

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