Coastal erosion is widespread and locally severe in Hawaii and other low-latitude areas. Typical erosion rates in Hawaii are in the range of 15 to 30 cm/yr (0.5 to 1 ft/yr; Hwang, 1981; Sea Engineering, Inc., 1988; Makai Ocean Engineering, Inc. and Sea Engineering, Inc.,1991). Recent studies on Oahu (Fletcher et al., 1997; Coyne et al., 1996) have shown that nearly 24%, or 27.5 km (17.1 mi) of an original 115 km (71.6 mi) of sandy shoreline (1940's) has been either significantly narrowed (17.2 km; 10.7 mi) or lost (10.3 km; 6.4 mi). Nearly one-quarter of the islands' beaches have been significantly degraded over the last half-century and all shorelines have been affected to some degree. Oahu shorelines are by far the most studied, however, beach loss has been identified on the other islands as well, with nearly 13 km (8 mi) of beach likely lost due to shoreline hardening on Maui (Makai Engineering, Inc. and Sea Engineering, Inc., 1991).
Causes of coastal erosion and beach loss in Hawaii are numerous but, unfortunately, poorly understood and rarely quantified. Construction of shoreline protection structures limits coastal land loss, but does not alleviate beach loss and may actually accelerate the problem by prohibiting sediment deposition in front of the structures. Other factors contributing to beach loss include: a) reduced sediment supply; b) large storms; and, c) sea-level rise. Reduction in sand supply, either from landward or seaward (primarily reef) sources, can have a myriad of causes. Obvious causes such as beach sand mining and emplacement of structures that interrupt natural sediment transport pathways or prevent access to backbeach sand deposits, remove sediment from the active littoral system. More complex issues of sediment supply can be related to reef health and carbonate production which, in turn, may be linked to changes in water quality. Second, the accumulated effect of large storms is to transport sediment beyond the littoral system. Third, rising sea level leads to a natural landward migration of the shoreline.
Dramatic examples of coastal erosion, such as houses and roads falling into the sea, are rare in Hawaii, but the impact of erosion is still very serious. The signs of erosion are much more subtle and typically start as a "temporary" hardening structure designed to mitigate an immediate problem which, eventually, results in a proliferation of structures along a stretch of coast. The natural ability of the sandy shoreline to respond to changes in wave climate is lost.
The overall goals of this study are to document the coastal erosion history in Hawaii, determine the causal factors of that erosion, provide high-quality data for other "end-users" in applied studies (i.e. coastal engineers, planners, and managers), and increase our general understanding of low-latitude coastal geologic development. This project involves close cooperation between the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program and the University of Hawaii.