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Climate change affects surf in Hawaiʻi

By: Carina Nocon & Megan Lucas

7 November 2019

On the island of Oʻahu, waves break on different sides of the island during certain seasons. However, the size and shape of the waves will slowly start to break differently because of how climate change is heating up Hawaiian waters. The changes in the waves will bring a new challenge to the home of many iconic surf spots, which tend to bring people to the center of the Pacific Ocean from thousands of miles away to the center of the Pacific Ocean.


“This whole relationship of the wave encountering the seafloor changes, so what previously would have been a beautiful tube will now be all mushy, "says Charles "Chip" Fletcher, vice-chair of the Honolulu Climate Change Commission.

Oʻahu’s North Shore is home to a stretch of beach called the “Seven Mile Miracle” that is home to prestigious reef surf breaks. This occurs because the water hits the reef at a specific spot or in a certain angle, causing the waves to take different forms. Several surf contests take place take place along this stretch of beach each winter. 


However, the warming waters that kill coral reefs, also known as “coral bleaching,” result in wave breaks changing. This means that the waves will not break where they used to.


“Scientists project that by 2040, all of the reefs in Hawaiʻi will experience bleaching, which is the first step toward dying in hot water every year… so we’re looking at maybe 20 years of living reefs left in Hawaiʻi,” says Fletcher.










Surf events that rely on the right size waves and the right speed winds might not exist in the future because of the warming climate.

Maui native and professional body-boarder Tanek Rucynski says he began to notice the differences in coral reefs as he grew older.


Rucynski says, “If all the reef is just bleaching and dying, and breaking away, it’s definitely going to affect the wave. That’s literally the material of what the wave is bouncing off of.” 


A reef break is a wave that starts peaking when it hits a specific part of the reef and then forms a wave, and a beach break is when the waves break close to shore because of shallow waters or a sandbar that forms.


Fletcher says, “One of the estimates that we’re looking at is a six-and-a-half-foot sea level rise by the end of the century… Any beach break will completely change the characteristics of that surf.”


Professional Surfer Julian Wilson surfing during the Billabong Pipe Masters at Ehukai Beach Park.


Charles “Chip” Fletcher explains the wave forecasts of the day on Nov. 7, 2019. Courtesy of Charles Fletcher.

Hurricane storms are another consequence of climate change that affects the surf in Hawaiʻi. The storms bring large surf and heavy winds that residents of Hawaiʻi  should be prepared for, according to Fletcher. He says that there will be more tropical storms in Hawaiʻi, but not necessarily globally. 


“We will see more tropical wave events with higher wind speeds and storms closer to Hawaiʻi, but the frequencies may be shorter because the storm will be closer,” says Fletcher. While it is normal for hurricanes to pass through the south of the Big Island, Fletcher says future hurricanes will intersect through the Hawaiian islands.


The storms that our islands will experience will be greater and stronger, having more harsh impacts that others in Hawaiʻi’s history.


In Oʻahu, the north shore already suffers the consequences: because of erosion on the shorelines, residents’ houses are gradually sliding away from their original foundation and closer to the water after a big swell rolls through.


Fletcher, who is also an associate dean and professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, says one of the first steps to take as a community is preparing for the effects of climate change and educating the next generation rather than just talking about them. 

Charles “Chip” Fletcher talks about his book Climate Change: What the science tells us and explains the moving message behind the visuals chosen for the book cover. Courtesy of Charles Fletcher.,+2nd+Edition-p-9781118793060

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