Sea-level Rise, FSM & Hawaii

By: Universe Yamase

Edited by: Otis Aisek

Photos by: The Fourth Branch & Dr. Charles Fletcher

(research conducted December 2011)


The world recognizes that the climate is acting strangely. Polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. Lands that once used to carry miles of running streams and rivers are no longer flowing. And the Oceans are rising to levels that may soon engulf countries. We take a look at how this global change is effecting the islands of FSM and the state of Hawaii.

One of the major signs of climate change is the sea level rise. It is proven that the sea level is continuously increasing. Dr. Charles Fletcher, a Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the School of Ocean, Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, states that there has been mapping of the ocean’s surface since 1993. From an article called, “Exploring the Oceans”, United States and France have formed a partnership called the TOPEX/Poseidon, which “monitor[s] global ocean circulation, discover[s] the tie between the oceans and atmosphere, and improve[s] global climate predictions”. The TOPEX/Poseidon satellite measures the sea level across the globe every ten days with accuracy. Dr. Fletcher states that these two countries have been gathering information for almost twenty years and their mappings have shown tremendous escalations of the sea level since 1993.

            Sea level rise has shown to be an alarming issue for many islands in the Pacific region. This article focuses on two regions in the Pacific in regards to sea level rise. These are the Hawaiian Islands, and the islands from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). We will first look at the Adaptive capacity of these two areas. Adaptive capacity is defined by the Green Facts as “the general ability of institutions, systems, and individuals to adjust to potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with the consequences.” A way to evaluate which government has the capability to adapt to sea level rise is by looking at the local level and its ability to undertake adaptation. These adaptations can be influenced by such factors as “managerial ability, access to financial, technological and information resources, infrastructure, the institutional environment within which adaptations occur, political influence, kinship networks, etc.” (Smit and Walden, 2006).

            Hawaii is far more capable of adapting to the changes. Four factors have determined Hawaii’s effectiveness: technology, finance, technical and scientific expertise, and infrastructure. Before providing supportive arguments to justify Hawaii’s strengths in all four criteria, there are other questions that need to be addressed, such as how is sea level rise affecting these islands? In addition, what is being done in Hawaii and FSM to respond to climate change? Moreover, comparing and contrasting these two places will show the degree of sea level rise in these islands. Communities in Hawaii and in the FSM are both working on ways to better be prepared for sea level rise by trying to be more resilient and adaptive. Sea level rise has become an issue that many island communities are advised to take priority.  

Background of Sea Level Rise in Hawaii

sea level map.jpg

(click photo for enlarged image)            In an interview with Dr. Charles Fletcher, he mentioned that on a satellite altimetry map (see photo), Hawaii’s location indicates that sea level is rising at 0 to 3 millimeters per year. Of greater concern are FSM’s rises, where the colors show a rise in sea level as much as 6 millimeters or more. Dr. Fletcher stated, “Hawaii is at a sweet spot”, or in a good location where sea level-rise is not growing as rapidly. The reason to Hawaii’s good location involves global warming. Global warming increases heating in the tropics, which causes atmospheric circulation and this drives trade winds. As a result of accelerated trade winds, water from the east has been pushed to the west, making the sea level higher in the west. Concurrently the east shows a range of low sea level rise. A slideshow by Dr. Fletcher entitled “Climate and Sea Level” explains that there are 7 factors to Hawaii’s climate change. Dr. Fletcher’s points are: air temperature is increasing (0.3 F/decade), rainfall (-15%) and stream discharge have decreased, rainstorm intensity has increased (+12% ??), hurricanes are modeled to increase in number, sea surface temperature is rising (0.22oF/decade), ocean has grown more acidic, and sea level is rising.

Effects of Sea Level Rise in Hawaii


Dr. Fletcher explains that during high tide in Waikiki, the waters have now moved up to where the Waikiki (Oahu, Hawaii)restaurants and hotel buildings are situated. Many hotels and restaurants on Waikiki have sandbags along their walls adjacent to the ocean to help prevent the ocean water from flooding inside their property. This is a problem that many businesses on Hawaii deal with. When high tide happens, the storm drains become an open channel for the ocean water to surface on land. At an area in Mapunapuna near the Hawaii International Airport, Dr. Fletcher said that the area is “so low that the salt water everyday at high tide comes up and floods a couple of blocks”.

Solutions to Sea Level Rise In Hawaii

            What is the government of Hawaii doing to solve these issues? In the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT), there is the Office of Planning, which deals with climate change. Within the Office of Planning, a program called the Coastal Zone Management (CZM) has been conducting meetings every month with all the agencies in Hawaii. These agencies are the federal, state, and county agencies that are concerned about the ocean and coastlines. As a group, they have reached a decision that climate change is the number one concern. Dr. Fletcher said that the decision-making of the agencies embark the initiation of climate change recognition and policy development. He continued on by saying that “people have known about climate change but they never were motivated or felt that it was a critical issue”. Now they are. He mentioned that he had played an important role in making aware that sea level rise is a critical issue through his research and data findings. According to Dr. Fletcher, Hawaii has not accomplished anything for climate change. Now, Hawaii is moving.  At the present moment, the state lacks sea level rise inundation maps. Dr. Fletcher’s team is the only holder of a sea level rise inundation maps in Hawaii. They use their maps and present them during talks to the agencies. Now, Hawaii’s formal procedure involves creating a policy for sea level rise. In January 2012, the office of Planning and DBEDT are going to submit a law stating that all planning in the State of Hawaii has to consider climate change amongst their impacts and design. This is Hawaii’s approach to climate change planning.

Background of Sea Level Rise in the FSM

            South west of the Hawaiian Islands, the islands of the Federated States of Micronesia faces the escalating effects of sea level rise. The satellite altimetry map, “created with sea surface height data from the Topex/Poseidon and Jason-1 satellites”, reveals that the FSM sits in the red zone where the sea level is at an average of 7 to 8 millimeters per year (Fletcher and Richmond, 2010 pg.7). During the interview with Fletcher, he said that there are places in Micronesia facing sea level rises of 10 millimeters per year, and these areas have the fastest sea level rise in the world. This makes the FSM very much vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Effects of Sea Level Rise in the FSM

A book called “Climate Change in the Federated States of Micronesia: Food and Water Security, Climate Risk Management, and Adaptive Strategies,” by Dr. Fletcher and Bruce M. Richmond exposes the severity of sea level rise to the islands. The islands are challenged by the increasing sea level over the past years. The islands have experienced the worst in 2007 and 2008. Dr. Fletcher and Richmond’s findings found that:

In 2007 and again in 2008, FSM communities were flooded by a combination of large swell and spring high tides that eroded beaches, undercut and damaged roads, intruded aquifers and wetlands, and inundated communities. Once again food and drinking water were in short supply. Seawater flowed into coastal wetlands and surged up through the water table, killing taro, breadfruit, and other foods. Fresh water ponds and wetlands turned brackish and have not recovered. Crop sites in use for generations were physically and chemically damaged or destroyed on approximately 60 percent of inhabited atoll islets. (Fletcher and Richmond 2010, pg. 9)


Despite that the islands encountered the worst of sea level destruction during these years, island communities across the FSM continue to struggle with these impacts and they are still ongoing. Dr. Fletcher explains the outer-islands are at a higher risk and vulnerability because they are self-reliant when it comes to growing their own food. Another dilemma is their isolation and far distance from the main island where imported food can be easily attained. Sea level rise has definitely altered the everyday living of these people. Once arable lands have now been tainted by seawater, making the growing of crops improbable. In addition to the tainted soil, rising levels of seawater have also tainted wells, adding water shortage to a list of growing problems. The effects of sea level rise have caught the attention of the FSM government leaders, and they are aware that they need to look at ways of resilience and adaptation.

Solutions to Sea Level Rise in FSM

In an interview with Mrs. Cindy Ehmes, the Assistant Director of the Office Environment and Emergency Management (EEM) in the FSM National Government, she provided a document called Nationwide Climate Change Policy 2009. This is a policy that the FSM President Emmanuel Mori passed in 2009. The policy states to, “mitigate climate change especially at the international level, and adaptation at the national, state, and community levels to reduce the FSM’s vulnerability to climate change adverse impacts.” With the little help from the FSM’s government, the islands have shown some forms of progress. For the islanders to grow their food, they have built cement blocks to protect their crops from getting destroyed by the flooding ocean water during high tides (Fletcher and Richmond 2010, pg.19). These cement blocks are also called cement taro, and they have been successfully used throughout Yap State (pg. 19). Now many islands are using this method, which is showing effective results. Other methods include involves the use of the islands’ resources instead of shipping in cement. This unique development is growing food on a bed of coconut husk stacked upon layers of each other to be off from the ground. As for water development, nothing has been done to protect the wells. As of now, “many communities on atoll islets now rely on catchment systems as their primary water source” (pg.15).

                 To learn on what the EEM is doing, one of the interview questions for Mrs. Ehmes was “what has the EEM accomplished in response to sea level rise?” She said that in March 2010 EEM along with state government counterparts underwent an assessment in the States of Yap, Chuuk and Pohnpei. This assessment is called vulnerability and adaptation (V&A). In the assessment, there are six key sectors that are closely evaluated and they are: agriculture, marine, terrestrial, coastal, water, and infrastructure. Unfortunately, the evaluations have not been completed. EEM is still waiting for the report. Mrs. Ehmes said that the report will hopefully “enhance FSM’s effort to leverage funds to address climate change impacts in the outer-islands and their coastal communities”.   

Reasons for Hawaii’s Lead in Adaptive Capacity

            The first key factor is technology. Hawaii’s government clearly possesses the necessary equipments for sea level response. According to Dr. Fletcher, Hawaii has lidar. A lidar is “when an airplane uses a lazar to map the topography of the land, and it’s highly precise”. Honolulu has lidar data. Once a country has lidar data, the country can artificially flood it with water. On the other hand, FSM does not have access to a lidar. Fletcher advised that FSM should make it a number one priority to have a lidar flown across the islands. Once there is compiled data from the lidar, the FSM government can move forward to find areas where there are high risk and vulnerability. Right now, FSM has no data.

Dr. Fletcher and his team from the University of Hawaii at Manoa were able to collect lidar data because the US National Government ordered agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to fly lidar across all US states. FSM does not even have tsunami warning systems in place compared to Hawaii even knowing that the islands are also very vulnerable to a tsunami crisis.

            Money is the second factor to Hawaii’s lead in adaptive capacity. If FSM had funding, they would have had the capability to fly lidar across the islands and collect data. Dr. Fletcher said it is expensive to purchase a lidar. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. FSM cannot afford this device with the budget they have. A statement by Mrs. Ehmnes stated that:

We lack funds to address impacts of sea level rise on food crops, infrastructure, water resources, etc., but with little funds that we can get from donors, we are able to do some restoration like provisioning of agricultural crops/seedlings to those affected islands, assist with infrastructure climate proofing – i.e. runway expansion in Pohnpei, Road construction in Kosrae, raised taro beds in Chuuk, field testing of salt tolerant crops for the outer-islands and coastal communities, coastline restoration projects through replanting endemic trees, etc. With funding, we can do so much to adapt to the rising sea.

Clearly the FSM’s government relies on financial help from elsewhere for the restoration projects being conducted. This shows that the FSM government does not have sufficient funding to handle their problems. FSM is a developing country.

            A third contributing factor is Hawaii’s Technical and Scientific expertise.  An example is the University of Hawaii. Fletcher stated that Hawaii agencies turn to the University of Hawaii to perform research and to provide advanced data for specific planning. Agencies in Hawaii have the luxury of a highly credited school that is home to climate change experts. Whereas in the FSM, the government does not have an established University that can offer adequate information that the country needs. FSM recognizes that Hawaii has professionals that are experts in the field of climate change. This is why they look up to Hawaii for help. Dr. Fletcher was able to do research in the FSM on climate change. “The report [was] produced by the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program’s Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy in affiliation with the US Geological Survey and the United States Department to Agriculture (USDA), Forest Service.” (pg.1).


Chuuk Road Construction (Sept. 2011) Lastly, infrastructure is one of the main elements to why Hawaii has better adaptive capacity than the FSM in handling sea level rise. Fletcher explains that the state of Hawaii is always rebuilding its roads and installing better electrical wirings. However in the FSM, many of the buildings, pipes, roads, and electrical networks are old and are not being updated. For Hawaii, once that policy is passed by the Office of Planning and DBEDT in January 2012, which makes all types of future development to include sea level rise proofing, it will help reinforce resiliency.  Right now, Chuuk is undergoing construction of new roads, which is worth millions of dollars. The issue here pointed out by Fletcher that the State is not considering climate proofing in the road construction. He asked one of the Chuukese officials why the State is not raising the roads. With all the collected data and evidence brought forth to the FSM that it is in an area with the fastest growing sea level, Chuuk is not considering raising its roads. According to Dr. Fletcher, the response he received was that Chuuk State did not have enough money to cover the extra costs for climate change proofing.

            Hawaii’s government definitely outweighs the FSM’s government in areas of technology, financial capability, scientific expertise, and infrastructure. Although Hawaii is starting to implement a policy in 2012 for climate change, Dr. Fletcher is optimistic that the Hawaii government can definitely speed up


on their climate change development once the policy passes. As for the FSM government, they introduced its policy in 2009. Two years later, the government still has not responded adequately to the issue of climate change. As explained earlier, Outer-islands in FSM are already facing severe effects of high sea levels. Higher tides have contaminated fresh water wells and made farming impossible with salinized soil. Hawaii has a good jump-start in preparation of what is expected to happen. As a result of Dr. Fletcher’s research in the FSM and elsewhere, Hawaii has finally recognized the importance to act immediately and make use of their resources. Hopefully in time, FSM will see a rise in its adaptive levels, to effectively respond to this rise in our ocean’s sea levels.


1. "Cindy Ehmes." E-mail interview. 30 Nov. 2011.

2. "Dr. Charles Fletcher." Personal interview. 1 Nov. 2011.

3. Fletcher, Charles, and Bruce M. Richmond. Climate Change in the Federated States of Micronesia:Food and Water Security, Climate Risk Management, and Adaptive Strategies. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program, 2010. Print.

4."Glossary: Adaptive Capacity." GreenFacts - Facts on Health and the Environment. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. .

5. "Oceans Alive! | The Scientist at Sea | Remote Sensing." Museum of Science, Boston | Home. Web. 6 Dec. 2011. .

6. Smit, Barry, and Johanna Wandel. Adaptation, Adaptive Capacity and Vulnerability. 8 Mar. 2006. PDF.

(Apart from the Satellite Altimetry Map, photographs of places are added solely for visual aid. They should not and are not representative of the severe situation of climate change.)