CLIMATE CHANGES AFFECTING PACIFIC ISLANDS

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By Craig DeSilva

HONOLULU Hawai‘i (June 27, 2000 - PIDP/CPIS)---Small, isolated Pacific Islands have always been vulnerable to global climate changes and weather phenomena.

Although weather forecasters can make broad predictions, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when or where a typhoon or hurricane will hit.

But Pacific Island countries and territories can prepare themselves in advance to minimize disastrous effects during weather-changing periods.

"By anticipating in advance, you can take some preparatory action," said Eileen Shea, an adjunct fellow of environmental studies at the East-West Center. "I think all of the Pacific Island nations are looking at adapting to climate change as well as reducing greenhouse gases."

Shea will give a talk Wednesday at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel on the Big Island of Hawai‘i on "Consequences of Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities for Pacific Islands and Hawai‘i."

Shea said Pacific Islands that are alerted to major global climate changes can prepare themselves in advance. For example, regarding the 1997-98 El Niño in the Pacific, the Federated States of Micronesia formed a drought task force before it occurred.

The FSM also developed a public awareness campaign to alert the general population to minimize the effects of the drought.

"Water conservations measures were instituted earlier rather than later," Shea said.

In the Republic of Palau, a decision was made to extend the height and width of the main island’s principle dam prior to the wet season so it could hold as much rainfall as possible before drought set in.

Shea is also the Climate Project Coordinator at the East-West Center. The EWC’s Pacific Islands Regional Assessment program is made up of scientists, researchers, and other officials from the United States and Pacific Islands who are working to deal with climate change issues throughout the Pacific.

The one-year program is being conducted in conjunction with the Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which is looking into climate change. Shea said the Pacific Islands community will have an opportunity through public hearings to present input on a just released draft report entitled "Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change." The public hearings end in August.

Shea said although rising sea levels have been a constant issue facing the Pacific, there are other climate changes that have just as important implications.

"For a variety of reasons, sea-level rise has had a hammerlock on discussions of vulnerability to climate change," Shea said. "What we’re trying to do is expand our thinking to address other issues beyond sea level."

Some of the climate issues posing a threat to the Pacific include:

· Increase in air temperature, which can possibly increase the intensity of El Niños;

· Changes and increased intensity in tropical cyclone patterns as a result of global warming;

· Changes in ocean circulation patterns and temperatures, which affect fish stock in the Pacific. Some fish in the Pacific, such as tuna, tend to follow warmer water. "If El Niños are more frequent, tuna migratory patterns will change," she said. "That has significant impacts because that means they can move in and out of a nation’s jurisdiction. And that’s quite significant particularly for (Pacific) jurisdictions that might be thinking tuna fisheries are an economic source in the future."

· Warming of ocean temperatures impacting coral reefs. "The 1997-98 El Niño saw substantial bleaching of coral reefs around the Pacific," Shea said. "They were much more severe than in the past. That could lead to secondary impacts on surrounding ecosystems and tourism."

"The islands that are most vulnerable are the low-lying atolls," she said. "Any island that doesn’t have mountainous relief is problematic. And it varies across the Pacific. Some islands are tectonically growing, such as the Big Island of Hawaii. But others are actually sinking because of tectonics."

Shea adds a recent study shows that the Pacific is experiencing the same average rate of rising sea levels as the rest of the world.

"They’re not seeing an enhancement in sea-level rise any more than (elsewhere) in the world," she said. "The sea-level rise issue is a long-term issue, (one) of whether you’re going to have an island, because it (may) be covered over."

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