Hawaii’s Disappearing Beaches

Could Hawaii’s idyllic beaches soon be gone forever? According to the Associated Press, “geologists say more than 70 percent of Kauai’s beaches are eroding” and Oahu has lost almost a quarter of its shoreline. The devastation is occurring throughout the Hawaiian island chain and is a huge blow to a state whose largest employer is tourism–raking in $11.4 billion annually.  Even worse, if this continues it would mean the destruction of many already endangered and threatened animals’ habitats.

So, what’s caused this and what’s being done to stop it? Chip Fletcher, a geology professor at the University of Hawaii, believes the current erosion was caused by a variety of factors, including a steady historic climb in sea levels that likely dates back to the 19th century, storms, and human actions such as the construction of seawalls, jetties, and the dredging of stream mouths. But experts also warn that a more rapid rise in sea levels caused by global warming will have an effect in the next few decades, causing shorelines in Hawaii and elsewhere to erode much more quickly.

There is no one solution to this problem says Sam Lemmo, the administrator of Hawaii’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands. Lemmo believes that it is necessary for Hawaii to adopt a variety of strategies for each of its beaches. First on the agenda is making sure undeveloped beaches stay that way. Lemmo said they recently had to fight a Florida-based developer from building luxury homes on Oahu’s North Shore. The developer backed off, but there will likely be more fights like it in the future.

As for the islands of Kailua, Fletcher suggests using a “triage” strategy. The Kailua islands are already developed but don’t have seawalls, so Fletcher proposes identifying areas where a land conservation fund could buy five or six adjoining properties, and the state could then tear down the houses and allow the beach to shift inland. It’s not a perfect system, but many believe it is better than letting the beaches disappear. Solutions have not been found that will help all the islands. Lemmo believes there are some beaches that are just too far-gone to save.

Photo: Pet_r via Flickr