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Climate Change Brings Challenges for the CNMI: Stronger Storms, Coral Loss, and Health Risks


On October 25, 2018, Super Typhoon Yutu impacted the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI); the most significant storm to impact U.S. soil since 1935. Sustained wind speeds of 180mph caused catastrophic damage to the islands of Saipan and Tinian, resulting in two deaths and 133 injuries. Credit: USDA/Pacific Southwest Forest Service

Hotter weather, stronger typhoons, coral reef death, and human health risks are among the major challenges detailed in a new report on climate change in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), led by members of CPO’s Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment team (Pacific RISA) and co-supported by CPO’s Assessments Program. According to the report, threatened resources include high-value coastal infrastructure and the millions of dollars that ocean ecosystems add to the CNMI economy annually.

Titled Climate Change in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: Indicators and Considerations for Key Sectors, the report is the third in a series of reports prepared by the Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA), a consortium of government, NGO, and research entities, in collaboration with authors from the CNMI Office of Planning and Development, NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management, and the East-West Center—along with 50 technical contributors from local governments, NGOs, researchers, and community groups.

“Since 2019, many of our government agencies under the Planning and Development Advisory Council have supported data collection and analysis efforts led by the East-West Center and other federal and local stakeholders to assess how climate change is impacting the Marianas,” said CNMI Governor Ralph DLG Torres. “This resulting report provides updated data on impacts to support climate-wise planning and development. The CNMI relies on a clean and healthy environment for our livelihoods and way of life, and I commend the collaborative efforts of our agencies to help us support sustainable development goals and enable us to adapt to our changing climate to protect our infrastructure, communities, and ecosystems. I thank the Office of Planning and Development for comprehensively mainstreaming considerations of smarter, safer growth through this important work. Together, with data-driven policy guidance, we will plan and achieve resilient growth that properly balances economic development and environmental protection.”

The report builds upon the Fourth National Climate Assessment, offering a closer look at the implications of climate change for the CNMI and providing information for a wide range of sectors.

Key Messages

Climate Change in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands lays out the changes the CNMI is already experiencing, as well as what lies ahead. The key messages for decision-makers include:

  • Temperatures have risen, and hotter days and nights affect human health. Heat waves can exacerbate a range of pre-existing health issues, and hot weather poses a particular threat to children and elderly people.  
  • Stronger tropical storms and typhoons are expected globally and around the Mariana Islands. More intense tropical cyclones mean a greater potential for loss of life, damage, and public health issues from these storms. 
  • Sea level rise threatens infrastructure, including housing, businesses, and transportation, as well as ecosystems and cultural sites. More frequent and intense coastal flooding and erosion are anticipated as sea level rise accelerates.
  • Oceans are warming, causing coral bleaching that is already widespread and severe. Extensive coral loss is possible within the next few decades if current trends in rising ocean temperatures continue. Coral reefs inject tens of millions of dollars annually into the local economy.

“Climate change is adding new layers of complexity to the economic and environmental challenges we routinely face in the CNMI,” said Robbie Greene, Coral and Coastal Management Liaison with Lynker Tech at NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management. “Resources such as this report provide clear and concise messaging about the impacts of climate change, and the considerations that CNMI decision makers and resource managers will need to account for in order to adapt in the coming years. Whether we’re talking about something as broad as economic recovery, or simply putting food on the table, a shifting climate warrants a road map for the Commonwealth’s future, and this report is a great start.”

The collective efforts of the technical contributors, coordinating authors, and PIRCA Advisory Committee made the report possible. PIRCA is funded and supported by CPO’s RISA Program, the East-West Center, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s PI-CASC, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. In conjunction with other regional assessment efforts, the PIRCA provides guidance for decision-makers seeking to better understand how climate variability and change impact the Pacific Islands region and its peoples.

This article was adapted from a press release written by the East-West Center.

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