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Modeling Future Change in Low-Lying Islands

Posted on Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Low-elevation atoll islands are literally ground zero for considering impacts of climate change. So coastal geologist Haunani Kane developed a model to explain 5,000 years of geological processes in the Marshall Islands and assess the risk from future sea level rise to the sprawling Pacific island chain. Kane integrated fossil data, historical photographs, and modern observations of extreme tides and wave events to examine how the islands have responded to past changes and gauge when rising sea levels will threaten the freshwater sources and forests human inhabitants depend on.

“In all cases, islands experience rapid decreases in stability by midcentury,” the 2017 ARCS Scholar says. In the most likely scenario, the rate of sea level rise will triple, and groundwater sources will be permanently lost within a few decades; under an extreme scenario, islands will be fully unstable and community infrastructure will reach intolerable levels of risk as regional sea level exceeds one meter by the year 2060.

Kane’s work also explores island resiliency—its ability to recover—from the perspectives of residents living on an island that is rapidly changing in response to sea level rise. She urges that adaptation strategies be implemented now, that they incorporate both natural and engineered forms of resiliency, and that they be grounded on the principle that resilient islands also sustain the cultural identity of island people. 

ARCS Scholar Alum Haunani Kane
Haunani Kane uses her background and experience as a Hawaiian voyager and climate scientist to provide an inclusive understanding of the environment. Photo courtesy of Haunani Kane

Since receiving her PhD in geology and geophysics from University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Kane has worked with the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo MEGA (multiscale environmental graphical analysis) lab as a National Science Foundation-funded postdoctoral fellow to examine the fossil record of submerged corals and assess the resiliency of atoll islands within Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The site is the largest contiguous fully protected conservation area under the United States flag and currently the largest marine conservation area in the world. The project is called “He puko’a kani ’āina: a coral reef that grows into an island,” because atoll islands are composed entirely of material from the reefs and depend on the health of surrounding reefs to recover from environmental stressors.

In August 2021, Kane will assume a faculty position with Arizona State University, teaching distance education courses from Hilo related to climate change and the migration and voyages of Pacific Islanders. She brings firsthand experience to the latter topic as a veteran sailor on transoceanic voyages aboard Polynesian Voyaging Society outrigger canoes. She would like to acquire a small canoe that she can use with students, and she hopes to work with communities in Hawai‘i to build resiliency strategies to prepare for climate change.