The U.S. Pacific Islands are culturally and environmentally diverse, treasured by the 1.9 million people who call them home. Pacific islands are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts due to their exposure and isolation, small size, low elevation (in the case of atolls), and concentration of infrastructure and economy along the coasts.
A prevalent cause of year-to-year changes in climate patterns around the globe1 and in the Pacific Islands region2 is the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The El Niño and La Niña phases of ENSO can dramatically affect precipitation, air and ocean temperature, sea surface height, storminess, wave size, and trade winds. It is unknown exactly how the timing and intensity of ENSO will continue to change in the coming decades, but recent climate model results suggest a doubling in frequency of both El Niño and La Niña extremes in this century as compared to the 20th century under scenarios with more warming, including the higher scenario (RCP8.5).3,4
On islands, all natural sources of freshwater come from rainfall received within their limited land areas. Severe droughts are common, making water shortage one of the most important climate-related risks in the region.5 As temperature continues to rise and cloud cover decreases in some areas, evaporation is expected to increase, causing both reduced water supply and higher water demand. Streamflow in Hawai‘i has declined over approximately the past 100 years, consistent with observed decreases in rainfall.6
The impacts of sea level rise in the Pacific include coastal erosion,7,8 episodic flooding,9,10 permanent inundation,11 heightened exposure to marine hazards,12 and saltwater intrusion to surface water and groundwater systems.13,14 Sea level rise will disproportionately affect the tropical Pacific15 and potentially exceed the global average.16,17
Invasive species, landscape change, habitat alteration, and reduced resilience have resulted in extinctions and diminished ecosystem function. Inundation of atolls in the coming decades is projected to impact existing on-island ecosystems.18 Wildlife that relies on coastal habitats will likely also be severely impacted. In Hawaiʻi, coral reefs contribute an estimated $477 million to the local economy every year.19 Under projected warming of approximately 0.5°F per decade, all nearshore coral reefs in the Hawai‘i and Pacific Islands region will experience annual bleaching before 2050. An ecosystem-based approach to international management of open ocean fisheries in the Pacific that incorporates climate-informed catch limits is expected to produce more realistic future harvest levels and enhance ecosystem resilience.20
Indigenous communities of the Pacific derive their sense of identity from the islands. Emerging issues for Indigenous communities of the Pacific include the resilience of marine-managed areas and climate-induced human migration from their traditional lands. The rich body of traditional knowledge is place-based and localized21 and is useful in adaptation planning because it builds on intergenerational sharing of observations.22 Documenting the kinds of governance structures or decision-making hierarchies created for management of these lands and waters is also important as a learning tool that can be shared with other island communities.
Across the region, groups are coming together to minimize damage and disruption from coastal flooding and inundation as well as other climate-related impacts. Social cohesion is already strong in many communities, making it possible to work together to take action. Early intervention can lower economic, environmental, social, and cultural costs and reduce or prevent conflict and displacement from ancestral land and resources.