Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Predicting sea-level rise vulnerability of terrestrial habitat and wildlife of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

November 8, 2012

If current climate change trends continue, rising sea levels may inundate low-lying islands across the globe, placing island biodiversity at risk. Recent models predict a rise of approximately one meter (1 m) in global sea level by 2100, with larger increases possible in areas of the Pacific Ocean. Pacific Islands are unique ecosystems home to many endangered endemic plant and animal species. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), which extend 1,930 kilometers (km) beyond the main Hawaiian Islands, are a World Heritage Site and part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. These NWHI support the largest tropical seabird rookery in the world, providing breeding habitat for 21 species of seabirds, 4 endemic land bird species and essential foraging, breeding, or haul-out habitat for other resident and migratory wildlife. In recent years, concern has grown about the increasing vulnerability of the NWHI and their wildlife populations to changing climatic patterns, particularly the uncertainty associated with potential impacts from global sea-level rise (SLR) and storms. In response to the need by managers to adapt future resource protection strategies to climate change variability and dynamic island ecosystems, we have synthesized and down scaled analyses for this important region. This report describes a 2-year study of a remote northwestern Pacific atoll ecosystem and identifies wildlife and habitat vulnerable to rising sea levels and changing climate conditions. A lack of high-resolution topographic data for low-lying islands of the NWHI had previously precluded an extensive quantitative model of the potential impacts of SLR on wildlife habitat. The first chapter (chapter 1) describes the vegetation and topography of 20 islands of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the distribution and status of wildlife populations, and the predicted impacts for a range of SLR scenarios. Furthermore, this chapter explores the potential effects of SLR on wildlife breeding habitats for each island. The subsequent chapter (chapter 2) details a study of the Laysan Island ecosystem, describing a quantitative model that incorporates SLR, storm wave, and rising groundwater inundation. Wildlife, storm, and oceanographic data allowed for an assessment of the phenological and spatial vulnerability of Laysan Island's breeding bird species to SLR and storms. Using remote sensing and geospatial techniques, we estimated topography, classified vegetation, modeled SLR, and evaluated a range of climate change scenarios. On the basis of high-resolution airborne data collected during 2010-11 (root-mean-squared error = 0.05-0.18 m), we estimated the maximum elevation of 20 individual islands extending from Kure Atoll to French Frigate Shoals (range: 1.8-39.7 m) and computed the mean elevation (1.7 m, standard deviation 1.1 m) across all low-lying islands. We also analyzed general climate models to describe rainfall and temperature scenarios expected to influence adaptation of some plants and animals for this region. Outcomes for the NWHI predicted an increase in temperature of 1.8-2.6 degrees Celsius (°C) and an annual decrease in precipitation of 24.7-76.3 millimeters (mm) across the NWHI by 2100. Our models of passive SLR (excluding wave-driven effects, erosion, and accretion) showed that approximately 4 percent of the total land area in the NWHI will be lost with scenarios of +1.0 m of SLR and 26 percent will be lost with +2.0 m of SLR. Some atolls are especially vulnerable to SLR. For example, at Pearl and Hermes Atoll our analysis indicated substantial habitat losses with 43 percent of the land area inundated at +1.0 m SLR and 92 percent inundated at +2.0 m SLR. Across the NWHI, seven islands will be completely submerged with +2.0 m SLR. The limited global ranges of some tropical nesting birds make them particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts in the NWHI. Climate change scenarios and potential SLR impacts presented here emphasize the need for early climate change adaptation and mitigation planning, especially for species with limited breeding distributions and/or ranges restricted primarily to the low-lying NWHI: Cyperus pennatiformis var. bryanii, Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), Laysan Albatross (P. immutabilis), Bonin Petrel (Pterodroma hypoleuca), Gray-backed Tern (Onychoprion lunatus), Laysan Teal (Anas laysanensis), Laysan Finch (Telespiza cantans), and Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi). Furthermore, SLR scenarios that include the effects of wave dynamics and groundwater rise may indicate amplified vulnerability to climate change driven habitat loss on low-lying islands. In chapter 2, we incorporated the combined effects of SLR, dynamic wave-driven inundation, and rising groundwater in a quantitative study specifically for the Laysan Island ecosystem. This is the first hydrodynamic model to simulate the combined impacts of SLR and wave-driven inundation in the NWHI. We developed a high-resolution digital elevation model (mean vertical accuracy of 0.32 m) for the island. Then using recent satellite imagery, geospatial models, and historical oceanographic, storm, and biological data we estimated potential inundation extent, habitat loss, and wildlife population impacts for a range of potential SLR scenarios (0.00, +0.50, +1.00, +1.50, and +2.00 m) that may occur over the next century. Additionally, we estimated the carrying capacity of Laysan Island for five species based on the available population monitoring data and described how potential losses in nesting habitat could influence population dynamics for Black-footed Albatross, Laysan Albatross, Red-footed Booby (Sula sula), Laysan Teal, and Laysan Finch. For some other seabird populations (Masked Booby, S. dactylatra; Brown Booby, S. leucogaster; Great Frigatebird, Fregata minor; and Sooty Tern, Onychoprion fuscata), we used recent colony distribution data, land cover maps, and nesting behavior to estimate potential losses of nesting habitat from SLR and wave-driven inundation. We observed far greater potential impacts of SLR to wildlife with the dynamic wave-driven modeling approach than with the passive modeling approach. Depending on SLR scenario and coastal orientation, during storms under a +2.00 m SLR scenario, the wave-driven inundation model predicted three times more inundation than the passive model (17.2 percent of total terrestrial area versus 4.6 percent, respectively). Large-wave events generally added 1 m of water height to passive inundation surfaces, therefore our dynamic models (during storm events) forecasted comparable inundation extents earlier than passive models. Although wave-driven water levels were highest in the northwest quadrant of Laysan Island, the greatest extent of inundation occurred in the southeast where coastal dunes less than 3 m above mean sea level provide little protection from wave-driven inundation. When wave-driven inundation was included in the SLR model for Laysan Island greater nesting habitat loss and potential impacts on wildlife population dynamics were predicted. The consequences of habitat loss due to SLR may be worse for species with colonies in the wave-exposed coastal zones (for example, Black-footed Albatross) and for populations already near the island's carrying capacity (for example, Laysan Teal). Species whose peak incubation and chick-rearing periods coincide with seasonally high wave heights also will be increasingly vulnerable, especially those species nesting on the ground in areas vulnerable to inundation, such as Gray-backed Tern and Black-footed Albatross. Other species that have space for population growth, or are not restricted to a narrow range of habitat types on Laysan (for instance, Sooty Terns), may be less sensitive to habitat loss from SLR over the next century. Our assessments of inundation risk, habitat loss, and wildlife species vulnerability synthesize current knowledge about individual islands and contribute to a broader understanding of the impacts of inundation from SLR and storm-induced waves. Yet, most NWHI and their bird populations lack monitoring data to evaluate adaptations to and impacts of climate change. Exceptions include some data sets from long-term monitoring of wildlife populations, tides, or weather at French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, and Midway Atoll. These data sets are potentially valuable baselines, which could be informative for adaptive learning (integrating management and science) to predict, adapt, and mitigate the effects of climate change on NWHI wildlife in the future. This study provides the first quantitative vulnerability assessment for all of the low-lying NWHI, and results identify biological communities, locales, and resident endangered species of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument expected to be at risk from SLR. This report is also intended as a reference for managers and conservation planners, a tool to identify and potentially reduce uncertainty, and a starting place for developing climate change monitoring priorities and future scientific studies.

Publication Year 2012
Title Predicting sea-level rise vulnerability of terrestrial habitat and wildlife of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands
DOI 10.3133/ofr20121182
Authors Michelle H. Reynolds, Paul Berkowitz, Karen N. Courtot, Crystal M. Krause
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2012-1182
Index ID ofr20121182
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center; Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center; National Climate Adaptation Science Center