U.S. Tropical Islands Impacts & Adaptation
On This Page
- Sea level rise could threaten the water supplies, ecosystems, and infrastructure of U.S. tropical islands.
- Warmer and more acidic oceans would stress coral reefs, which have already been harmed by pollution.
- Climate change could have significant economic impacts on island tourism and fisheries.
- Climate Change and Water: Pacific Islands
- EPA Region 2 (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands)
- EPA Region 9 (including Hawaii and the Pacific Islands)
- USGCRP, Climate Change Wildlife and Wildlands: Caribbean
- USGCRP, Climate Change Wildlife and Wildlands: Pacific Islands
- Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network: Status of Caribbean Coral Reefs after Bleaching and Hurricanes in 2005 (PDF)
- USGCRP, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States: Islands
- IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group II, Small Islands
- NRC: America's Climate Choices Series: Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change
The U.S. tropical islands include Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean and Hawaii, Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and American Samoa in the Pacific. Each island has its own climate, geology, topography, industries, and culture, but some impacts of climate change could bring similar challenges to all island communities.
Many climate change impacts are likely to affect island communities in both the Caribbean and Pacific, including higher sea levels, more powerful tropical storms (such as hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the Pacific), and warmer, more acidic coastal waters. Unique island ecosystems, such as coral reefs and mangrove forests, are already facing stress from human development and pollution, making them particularly sensitive to additional stresses from climate change.  Buildings and important infrastructure on the coast could also be particularly sensitive to climate change impacts. 
Islands in both the Caribbean and the Pacific are likely to experience significant warming in the next century. Projections for warming by 2100 range from approximately 2.5°F to over 6°F, depending on global greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 21st century.  In the Caribbean, precipitation is projected to decrease overall. In the Pacific, summer precipitation and the frequency of heavy downpours is projected to increase.  Rising sea levels are likely to increase the frequency and severity of floods during storms, as well as to erode and inundate coastlines.
Impacts on Water Resources
Climate change will likely affect the availability of water on some islands, particularly on small islands and atolls. Ground and surface waters on many small islands are recharged by rainfall. Some islands are projected to experience decreases in precipitation, while others may see increases. 
In the Caribbean, where rainfall is projected to decrease, water supplies are likely to be reduced. Sea level rise and coastal erosion can also reduce water availability by inundating land with saltwater, contaminating freshwater and preventing recharge of the freshwater supply. On islands where populations are growing, or where infrastructure is old or poorly maintained, the impacts on water supplies may be especially severe. 
Though increases in precipitation may help ensure a supply of freshwater, heavy rainfall events could lead to flooding and landslides, which can reduce water quality and cause damage. In addition, the water infrastructure systems of some islands could be overloaded during heavy rainfall, affecting their ability to distribute drinking water or safely process wastewater. 
In the Pacific Islands, heavy rainfall is projected to increase, which may lead to more frequent flooding that could compromise the quality of water supplies and affect crop yields.  As explained in the Water Resources and Health pages, flooding events can cause sewage or agricultural pollution to flow into water supplies, which can present risks to human health.
For more information about climate change impacts on water, please visit the Water Resources page.
Impacts on Ecosystems
Islands are home to unique ecosystems and species that provide economic opportunities, safety, nourishment, and cultural value to island communities.   Changes in sea level, temperature, and the acidity of coastal waters could threaten the stability and functioning of these ecosystems.
For example, coral reefs represent an important habitat for many fish and marine animals. They also provide shoreline protection, valuable fisheries, and revenue through tourism. In Hawaii, reefs are estimated to bring in $360 million each year, and are valued at more than $10 billion. In the Caribbean, coral reefs provide annual benefits of more than $3 billion.  Reefs already face serious threats from water pollution. Warmer, more acidic coastal waters would likely serve as a further stress on many reefs.
The loss and inundation of other coastal habitats, such as mangroves, from sea level rise and storm surge could endanger species that use these habitats for nesting, nursing, and nutrients. 
Additionally, climate change may enhance conditions that facilitate the spread of invasive species and marine and terrestrial pathogens and diseases, which would affect an island's natural ecosystems and biodiversity. 
For more information about climate change impacts on coasts, please visit the Coastal Impacts page.
For more information about climate change impacts on ecosystems, please visit the Ecosystems Impacts page.
Impacts on Agriculture and Food
Many island populations depend on local crops and fisheries for their survival and economic development.
In the Pacific, almost all communities derive more than 25% of their animal protein from fish.  Changes in ocean temperatures could cause migratory shifts in fish species and damage to fish habitats. These impacts would exacerbate existing stresses on the fisheries, such as those from pollution and overfishing, and ultimately may lead to a decline in the abundance and health of fishery populations. 
Changes in climate are also likely to hurt coastal agriculture. In particular, sea level rise may lead to inundation or cause soils to become saltier and less fertile on some islands. Water supplies can suffer as a result of reductions in rainfall or from salt water intrusion. 
For more information about climate change impacts on agriculture and food, please visit the Agriculture and Food Impacts page.
Impacts on Infrastructure, Economy, and Culture
Climate change could have far-reaching effects on island infrastructure, economic development, and local culture. Island settlements, social and leisure events, and economic activity tend to be concentrated close to the coast, making them vulnerable to climate change impacts from coastal inundation, flooding, and shoreline erosion.  
Inundation, flooding, and shoreline erosion could affect critical infrastructure, such as airports, roads, ports, and hospitals. As the frequency and intensity of strong storms and flooding is projected to increase, infrastructure may need to recover faster and become more resilient to these impacts. Long-term infrastructure damage could disrupt services, including disaster risk management, health care, education, natural resource management, and economic activity in sectors such as tourism and trade.  
Climate change impacts will likely affect tourist activities. Sea level rise, warming water temperatures, increasing storm intensities, beach erosion, and ocean acidification could pose risks to beaches and threaten coastal activities, such as coral reef exploration, boating, and fishing. Tourism is a major economic activity for islands. In Puerto Rico, 3.5 million tourists spent $3.5 billion in 2009.  In Hawaii, tourism brought 7 million visitors to the islands in 2006 and generated more than $12 billion for the state. In the Caribbean, coral reefs provide annual net benefits from fisheries, tourism, and shoreline protection services of between $3.1 billion and $4.6 billion (in 2006).  
For more information about climate change impacts on culture, please visit the Society page.
To learn more about what the U.S. tropical islands are doing to adapt to climate change impacts, please visit the adaptation section of the U.S. Islands Impacts and Adaptation page.
 USGCRP (2009). Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States . Karl, T. R., J. M. Melillo, and T. C. Peterson (eds.). United States Global Change Research Program. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, USA.
 Mimura, N., L. Nurse, R.F. McLean, J. Agard, L. Briguglio, P. Lefale, R. Payet and G. Sem (2007). Small Islands. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability . Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Parry, M.L., O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, (eds.). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
 UNWTO (2011). UNWTO Tourism Highlights: 2011 Edition (PDF). United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Adaptation Examples in Islands
On This Page
- Maui and Kauai Counties, Hawaii adapt to sea level rise and coastal erosion
- Hawaii develops a Climate Change Adaptation Framework
- Maui and Kauai Counties in Hawaii updated coastal construction rules to account for rates of erosion. New construction has to be located farther from the coast to better protect property from a migrating coastline and sea level rise.
- In 2009, Hawaii released a framework to guide local-, county-, and state-level climate change adaptation planning.
- Federal agencies, NOAA and EPA, are supporting workshops, assessing vulnerabilities, and developing evacuation plans for four communities in Puerto Rico.
- EPA Region Office 2 (including the islands Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands)
- EPA Region Office 9 (including the Pacific Islands)
- UNEP, Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean: Climate Change in the Caribbean and the Challenge of Adaptation (PDF)
- The Puerto Rico Coastal Management Program (PRCZMP), Puerto Rico Coastal Adaptation Project 2010-2012 (PDF)
- Puerto DRNA: Climate Change in the Caribbean 2011: Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
- The State of Hawaii’s Ocean Resources Management Plan (ORMP) Working Group: A Framework for Climate Change Adaptation in Hawaii (PDF)
- University of Hawaii's Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy: Hawaiis Changing Climate Legislative Briefing Sheet (PDF)
- Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument: Management Plan (PDF)
- The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources & The University of Hawaii Sea Grant Program: Kailua Beach and Dune Management Plan (PDF)
- Hawaii Sea Grant Program: The Hawaii Coastal Hazard Mitigation Guidebook
Efforts to prepare for climate change are underway in the U.S. tropical islands — both in the Caribbean and in the Pacific. The islands will likely face varied impacts ranging from warmer and more acidic oceans to droughts, flooding, and sea level rise. Learn more about climate change impacts on U.S. tropical islands.
Below are case studies that describe some of the ongoing efforts to adapt to climate change impacts in U.S. tropical islands. Links to adaptation plans, reports, and studies specific to the region are also included at the bottom of the page. Both the case studies and links are intended to be illustrative — they are not intended to be comprehensive.
Maui and Kauai Counties, Hawaii adapt to sea level rise and coastal erosion
Sea level rise, more intense storms, and near-shore development will likely accelerate the rate of coastal erosion in Hawaii. With help from partners, such as the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program and Coastal Geology Group and Hawaii's Coastal Zone Management Program, some counties in Hawaii have decided to take action to reduce shoreline impacts from future erosion.  The state of Hawaii mandates that developments are built 20 to 40 feet away from the shoreline. Maui and Kauai counties adopted new rules that expand the required setbacks (distance between the ocean and development) based on measured rates of erosion. Erosion-based setback rules are calculated by multiplying the current rate of erosion by a number of years. In Kauai County, the number of years used for buildings on large lots is 70 or 100, depending on the size of the building footprint. These setback requirements are some of the most restrictive in the region and are designed to help protect life, property, and coastal resources. 
Hawaii develops a Climate Change Adaptation Framework
To address climate change and coastal hazards in more detail as part of the Ocean Resources Management Plan (ORMP) (PDF) , the Hawaii Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Program working group produced a "Framework for Climate Change Adaptation in Hawaii." (PDF) The framework offers specific steps for Hawaii to assess potential climate change impacts and determine effective adaptation strategies for the state. The working group proposed that the state form a climate change adaptation team to coordinate adaptation activities among multiple departments and levels of government. The adaptation team would identify planning sectors (such as water, health, and emergency management) that would likely be affected by climate. After conducting vulnerability and risk assessments, preparedness plans would be developed and implemented, including steps such as upgrading existing infrastructure and improving community awareness on health issues. 
Puerto Rico collaborates with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and EPA to develop adaptation strategies
Puerto Rico is working with NOAA and EPA to develop adaptation strategies and promote climate change awareness in the Caribbean.
- The Puerto Rico Coastal Zone Management Program (PRCZMP) is collaborating with numerous stakeholders to conduct a Coastal Adaptation Project (PDF).
- Sea Grant Puerto Rico — a program sponsored by NOAA at the University of Puerto Rico — is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable use of coastal and marine resources in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Caribbean region. Sea Grant Puerto Rico is conducting rapid response, community-based, climate adaptation demonstration projects in Guanajibo, San Jose, el Maní, and el Seco; providing climate change information to decision makers; and assisting communities directly in preparing or revising plans that include climate adaptation measures. 
- In November 2011, EPA co-sponsored a two-day public climate change conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, entitled "Climate Change in the Caribbean 2011: Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands." The conference brought together many experts in the field of climate change to discuss impacts and projections for the U.S. Caribbean, strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and steps that can be taken in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to increase resilience in the face of a changing climate.
 Conger, C. L. (2008). Sea Grant's Role in Improving Coastal Management in Hawaii (PDF). Hawaii Sea Grant.
 NOAA (2011). Ocean & Coastal Resource Management: Construction Setbacks . National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
 ORMP Working Group and ICAP (2009). A Framework for Climate Change Adaptation in Hawaii (PDF). State of Hawaii's Ocean Resources Management Plan Working Group and University of Hawaii Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy.
 NOAA( 2010). NOAA Sea Grant Initiates $1.2 Million Community Climate Change Adaptation Initiative . National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed 3/15/2012.