If you’ve ever visited the island of Maui, there’s a good chance you’ve visited some of the beaches there. There’s also a good chance that one of the best beach experiences you had was at Kaanapali Beach in the epicenter of Maui’s popular west coast.
However, if you’ve attempted to visit the Kaanapali recently, you probably noticed a very curious fact: it isn’t there anymore. It has been largely replaced by a dramatic cliff made of sand, concrete, and mangled debris. This is bound to be a startling discovery no matter how relaxed and carefree the ocean breeze and piña coladas have made you.
So, what happened? While this is a particularly bad instance, the reality is that West Maui has been struggling with erosion problems caused by ocean swells for many years. The same interplay between land and sea that formed these extraordinary islands in the first place still seems to have no idea that we’re here, nor any interest in the numerous expensive hotels we’ve built along the Kaanapali shoreline. Waves continue to eat away at the shore. This year, it has taken particularly big bites and gotten mouthfuls of concrete and coconut trees, ruining much of the beloved Beachwalk and scaring the hell out of resort guests staying just meters away.
The result is that most of the beach is currently underwater, while the popular walkway that runs along it has been completely inaccessible.
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Although the area has seen erosion problems for decades, according to officials, this isn’t just a natural phenomenon. Swells are getting significantly worse due to climate change raising the sea level. That rising tides are now encroaching so dramatically on one of the most popular areas in Hawaii - erasing a famous beach and scaring tourists back into their hotels - is a shocking wake-up call.
Residents who have seen numerous cycles of erosion and restoration at the location seem to be some of the loudest voices saying things are different this time. A debate is currently underway as to whether the walkway will even be rebuilt at all. One reason for that is bureaucracy. Kaanapali Alii Resort, which owns the walkway, would need specific permits from Maui County to rebuild it.
Another more significant reason is that Maui County might not grant such permits. It’s hard not to think this might be because, whether everyone wants to say it out loud or not, a restoration would be short-lived. As sea levels continue to rise, the scary fact is that we’ll see more and more events like this.
The interim dean from the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, Chip Fletcher, did not mince words when asked about the recent erosion at Kaanapali Beach, describing it as the worst he has ever seen. “I’ve never seen erosion get to the extent that it undermined and broke off the sidewalk there.”
Fletcher is not optimistic about a plan to have the walkway restored. Instead, he says what should seem obvious but is challenging to accept - the shoreline is moving. And as mentioned earlier, even though human activity is causing it to rise, the ocean doesn’t know we are here. Our only viable choice, according to Fletcher, is to, in the coming years, get out of the way.
In the short term, the northern portion of the beach and Black Rock are still accessible. It also may be the case that later in the wintertime, the water will recede. Kaanapali Alii Resort is open and welcoming guests, so don’t cancel your travel plans.
That being said, things are looking pretty concerning in the long term. Experts like Chip Fletcher seem to agree on and often repeat the same message: we are decades late on solving these ensuing problems, which don’t just affect Hawaii but coastal communities all across the globe.
What will Kaanapali Beach look like in 10 years? How long before the ocean reckons that the shoreline is located somewhere behind the row of beachfront hotels? There isn’t much positive to say here - other than that, according to experts, we still have a chance to engage in a managed retreat. A managed retreat means moving the shoreline before nature does it for us.
Amazingly, this seems like our best hope for Kaanapali Beach to be a place our children and grandchildren can enjoy as we have.