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Sea Grant scientist Tara Owens explains how computer modeling helps prepare for climate change

By on March 11, 2021 0

“IFrom the age of five, I knew I wanted to become a marine scientist, said Tara Owens. She grew up in Tennessee and spent the summer on the South Carolina coast. Fast forward, Owens is now 40 and has been a resident of Hawaii for over 10 years. She has meanwhile received her MSc in Coastal Geology from the University of Hawaii and is now a Coastal Process and Hazard Specialist under the UH Sea Grant Program at the Maui County Planning Department.

In this capacity, its mission is to help the Maui community understand active flooding, passive flooding, erosion and wave action, and how these and other factors could immediately affect coastal areas across Maui in the years to come.

A new tool for understanding sea level rise is the Hawai’i Sea Level Rise Viewer (Hawaiisealevelriseviewer.org). It is a web-based map viewer that shows sea level rise patterns. This was due to a legislative action launched in 2014 that was expanded in 2017 and adopted by the Hawaii State Climate Commission in December 2017.

While the Sea Level Rise Viewer can be customized to display many different scenarios, this article uses a composite view with the sea level rise set to 3.2 feet. The red lines in the visualizations (see photos below) show the extent of erosion as the sea level rises by 3.2 feet. “This,” Owens said, “is an increase that could be as early as the middle of the century.” The area shaded in blue indicates areas that the model predicts will be a sign of high water at a 3.2-foot sea level rise, due to a variety of factors including wave action, erosion, and active and passive flooding. She stressed that the rise in sea level was an ‘incremental’ event: ‘It doesn’t happen right away and it happens to a greater or lesser extent depending on the underlying conditions.’

It contrasted these kinds of changes with catastrophic events such as floods, tsunamis and tropical storms, which could have catastrophic results in a very short time. “While 3.2 feet is used as the projected standard (and the standard upon which the current proposed county planning complication is based), the actual range could be as little as two feet or even eight feet by the end of the century.”

(Article continues after photos)


Click the above images to view in full size. Included are Hawaii Sea Level Rise Viewer screenshots showing some of the areas most vulnerable to sea level rise in Maui. The 3.2-foot sea-level rise pictured in the photo could well be as early as mid-century, Owens said.

Hawaii Business The magazine analyzed this threat in its May 2019 issue, citing research by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA). “As the seas rise, the waves get larger and extend to the land, and their impact grows exponentially greater,” the article reads. “Last year’s tide of kings broke a 112-year-old state record, rising 12 inches above projected levels. In addition, the warmer the environment, the more intense and frequent the heavy rains and the closer the hurricanes will be. In 2015, the water in the ocean around Hawaii was 2 degrees warmer than normal, and this year the island has seen 15 hurricanes. ”

But Owens’ work is not only a catastrophe and a catastrophe. Dune restoration projects are one of the things that made him feel good about his job here. “Maui,” she said, “has been recognized for its programs in Kihei and Pa’ia.” For example, in Lower Pa’ia, due to the many paths leading to the beach, the dunes were demolished and there was no designated trail. Taking over management, marking paths and allowing vegetation to regenerate, the sand returned and the natural protection of the coastline increased. I like to think of this approach as the best release.

But, she added, although it worked for Pa’ia, it won’t work everywhere.

She was also optimistic about changing attitudes to coastal erosion along the Kahana coast. There are nearly 1,000 units in Kahan, mostly in nine different condominiums, all of which are threatened by the rising sea. This approach has gone from considering the mitigation of one plot at a time to a more inclusive approach that takes into account the whole beach (known in scientific language as “coastal cell beach”).


“In my work, I don’t see” climate deniers “as much as” climate ignorants. “


“Our community here on Maui is very conscious and much of what we do is driven by the community itself,” Owens said. “We come to the point where people understand that a package-by-package reply will not work. When you talk about beaches, you have to look at it from a systems perspective. Reefs and dunes actually protect the coastline. The storms would be worse if these the buffers were not there to absorb the energy of the storm.

“I consider this change in perception a success,” she said. On the other hand, it is discouraged by “making recommendations and stating that they are not being followed”.

“In my work,” she said, “I don’t see” climate deniers “as much as” climate-ignoring. ” They know the effects because they can see them, but choose to either ignore the effect and / or postpone the action. “

“Sometimes,” she admitted, “there is no ready-made solution. To find it, the whole community and the whole state are looking after the problem. The fact is, much of the existing development is at risk. ‘

This fact provoked various reactions. Owens had heard it became increasingly difficult to insure property on the coast. Real estate agents have adopted a more rigid language in the appendix used to sell offshore properties. However, all disclosure regulations related to the likely effects of sea level rise were overturned at the last legislative session.

Meanwhile, Owens supports the concept of “managed retreat.”

“It doesn’t mean cut and run,” she said. “This means identifying, re-aligning and, where possible, displacing structures, roadways and other threatened man-made objects.”

Some people ask is the Hawaiian sea level rise viewer reliable enough to influence these kinds of political decisions and hard money?


“There are always data and model limitations. However, with the development and adoption of the Hawaii sea-level rise report and viewer, we are lucky to have some of the best and highest resolution models available. ”


Owens acknowledged that there were questions about the viewer’s projection.

“There is a saying in the scientific world that” All models are wrong, but some models are useful. ” This is especially true for this application, ”she said. “There are always data and model limitations. However, with the development and adoption of the Hawai’i Sea Level Rise report and viewer, we are lucky to have some of the best and highest resolution modeling available. “

The models were developed by the University of Hawaii’s Coastal Geology Group, led by Dr. Chip Fletcher, a prominent UH scientist studying the effects of climate change, Owens explained, and published in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

“In addition,” according to Owens, “The Sea-Level Rise Report – a 300-page companion to the viewer and models contained in the viewer – has been adopted by the Hawaii Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Committee.” The Commission updated the disclaimer in the report by adding (partially): “Following the peer review and publication in the Nature Journal Scientific Reports, the results of this study are sufficiently validated to be adequately used in land management decisions as the best available information as of publication of the report, December 2017 “

“Given the information we have,” she asked, “are we stuck with some imperfection and then by default ignore the effects that are already being seen in our communities and worsening in the future?”

“Or maybe we adapt our policies to adapt to future conditions as much as possible? What can we do now as an island community so that we don’t look back in 50 years and wonder why we didn’t make better choices? “


Tara Owens is available for sea level rise consultation and presentation. Call her at 808-463-3868 or write to [email protected] The accompanying Hawaii Sea Level Rise Viewer Report is available via by clicking here.

Cover Design: Darris Hurst. Graphic Design: Darris Hurst and Brittany Skiller.

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