Adapting to Sea Level Rise and Coastal Erosion in Hawaii

Created: 12/22/2010 - Updated: 3/02/2020


Coastal erosion has been, and continues to be, a major issue in Hawaii. It is estimated that Oahu has lost 25% of its beaches from seawall construction resulting in beach erosion, while 72% of the beaches in Kauai are chronically eroding. In addition, the long-term effects of sea level rise are expected to accelerate and expand beach erosion and result in a landward shift of the beach system. While the State of Hawaii currently designates shoreline development setbacks at 40 feet from the upper reaches of the water line, many counties have chosen to establish stricter coastal construction setbacks based on the rate of erosion over 50-100 year time periods. 


Beach property in front of homes, hotels, and other built structures is subject to erosion from waves and tidal action. Climate change, particularly sea level rise, is likely to accelerate the rate of coastal erosion, resulting in a loss of shorelines, beaches, and property. Currently, Hawaii state law designates shoreline setback lines at 40 feet from the upper reaches of highest high tide, although individual counties do have the authority to establish deeper setbacks. As more information has become available regarding the causes of beach loss (e.g., seawall construction) and the potential for climate changes to exacerbate coastal erosion, many counties in Hawaii have chosen to enact stricter coastal construction setback policies.


Dr. Chip Fletcher at the University of Hawaii, an expert in coastal hazards and shoreline evolution, worked with different counties in Hawaii to modify coastal construction setback lines from a flat 40-foot line to setbacks based on the rate of erosion at each parcel of land (termed “rate-based setback”). For example, Maui County’s setback rule takes the annual rate of erosion over a 50-year time period and adds 20 feet. Kauai County has a similar approach but takes the annual rate of erosion over a 75-year time period. Kauai County also takes into consideration the size of the lot; if the lot is large, the rate of erosion is based on a 100-year time period plus an additional 40 feet. The setback rules are constantly subject to change and vary county-by-county.

Outcomes and Conclusions

Kauai County has one of the most progressive shoreline setback rules in the State of Hawaii and the United States. While every county in Hawaii has been implementing individual setback rules, the hope is that the state will officially adopt the rate-based setback method in order to establish progressive statewide coastal construction setback lines. The Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy produced a document on sea level rise, shoreline impacts, and setbacks and recommendations for amending setback policies, which was presented to a senate committee with the intent of basing setback policies on erosion rates rather than the current 40-foot rule.


Information gathered from phone interview. Last updated November 2010


Kershner, J. (2010). Adapting to Sea Level Rise and Coastal Erosion in Hawaii [Case study on a project of the University of Hawaii]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated November 2010)


Scale of Project
State / Provincial
Sector Addressed
Disaster Risk Management
Land Use Planning
Transportation / Infrastructure
Target Climate Changes and Impacts
Infrastructure damage
Public safety threats
Sea level rise
Storms or extreme weather events
Climate Type
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy
Design or reform institutions
Increase / Improve public awareness, education, and outreach efforts
Conduct / Gather additional research, data, and products
Infrastructure, Planning, and Development
Community Planning (developing climate-smart communities)
Create or modify shoreline management measures
Governance and Policy
Create new or enhance existing policies or regulations
Sociopolitical Setting
Effort Stage
In progress