'King tide' water levels could soon be a new normal in Hawaii, scientists warn

Scientists: 'King tide' water levels could soon be new normal
Published: May. 24, 2017 at 11:38 PM HST|Updated: May. 27, 2017 at 2:35 PM HST
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(Image: Barbara Dittrich)
(Image: Barbara Dittrich)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Peggy Foreman)
(Image: Peggy Foreman)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

WAIKIKI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Waikiki saw the highest tides so far this year Friday, as a "king tide" episode coupled with a south swell continued into its second day.

Spectators gathered in the state's no. 1 tourist destination to watch water levels rise, while surfers took advantage of the bigger surf to grab some waves.

"It seems pretty obvious that along the coastline they may have built a little too close," said Nick Tenney, as he watched the surf rise. "But maybe they didn't know about climate change and sea level rise and stuff like that."

On Thursday, high tides swallowed up parts of Waikiki's famous shoreline and came dangerously close to beachfront hotels. But there were no reports of damage, and sand bags and barricades held back the highest waves.

The Hilton Hawaiian Village did announce it would cancel its Friday night fireworks because of the high waters "out of an abundance of caution."

On Friday morning, city crews were again out in force in Waikiki, putting sandbags along the beach front and into crevices of the break wall.

Forecasters are warning coastal communities to prepare for the higher water levels through Sunday.

The peak water level is set to happen at 5:07 p.m. Friday, 5:55 p.m. Saturday, and 6:46 p.m. Sunday. The tide levels on those days are expected to be 2.3 to 2.5 feet above the average low water mark.

The high waters were most prominent in Waikiki on Thursday, but their effects were seen statewide.

In Ewa Beach, surf was washing onto roads or coming dangerously close to residents' backyards. The tide also pushed waters onto the Pearl Harbor bike path, making it virtually impassable. And in Mapunapuna, which often sees water on the roads during high tides, water could be seen more than a foot deep.

A glimpse of the new normal

Climate scientists have been using the "king tide" episode to underscore the potential effects of rising sea levels, including to Waikiki, the state's no. 1 tourist destination and the main economic driver for the islands.

Phil Thompson, of the University of Hawaii Sea Level Center, said a disappearing Waikiki shoreline needs to be considered as Hawaii plans for its future.

"This has big economic impacts and the structures here are increasingly in danger," he said.

Through the week, hotels and businesses in Waikiki have put down sandbags in vulnerable spots, and warned visitors and others about the possibility of flooding in underground parking garages.

"One of the areas that we're particularly concerned about ... is many of the emergency generators are located in the basements, so were advising them to be prepared to protect them if needed," said Dolan Eversole, of the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program.

Officials say consistent sea level rise over the last several decades has contributed to elevated high tides, which will eventually become the norm.

Planning for ways to better respond and recover from a high water event is one of the focuses of the new county Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency. Officials say this tidal event will serve as an important prediction tool and blueprint for guidelines on how to implement long term policies that will hopefully mitigate future hazards or risks.

King tides are a popular term for exceptionally high tides — that go above the highest water level reached during high tide on a normal day.

The arrival of a king tide during a south swell (and given overall sea level rise) is causing significant concern, not least of which because of ongoing erosion along Waikiki Beach.

Strong currents predicted

Meanwhile, lifeguards are bracing for a busy Memorial Day weekend, and warning that the high tide and swell could also produce dangerous ocean conditions.

"We'll have our full complement of 17 mobile response units, our eight rescue craft and all of our 42 towers around the island will be staffed," said Jim Howe, director of the Department of Emergency Services.

Authorities are warning people to avoid rocky ledges along coastlines to avoid being swept away.

They're also urging families to keep a close eye on children playing on the sand.

"Be alert for strong currents. With tides this high there's a lot of water moving around so there's an increased threat for rip currents," said John Bravender, NWS Acting Warning Coordination Meteorologist.

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