The Cook Islands
An eroding coast and destructive weather patterns are affecting the Cook Islands.
Rising temperatures and extreme weather patterns underscore the importance of adaptation for the Cook Islands.
• The country, in brief. The Cook Islands is a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand and situated off New Zealand’s northeast coast. Home to more than 21,000 inhabitants, the islands are a cluster of 15 atolls scattered across some 2 million square kilometres (1.2 million miles) of Pacific Ocean. The country’s northern low-lying atolls suffer from low fertility and scant resources; the southern islands are twice as likely to experience cyclones. Its highest point is on Rarotonga—the largest and most populous of the nation’s islands—at 658 metres (2,140 feet) above sea level.
• The Cook Islands sit at the heart of the “cyclone belt.” Between 1969 and 2010, the nation recorded 74 cyclones. Changing weather patterns mean the destructive storms will only intensify. In 2005, five consecutive cyclones over a two-month period blazed through the nation, causing damage estimated at $13.7 million. On average, destruction per cyclone totals $4.5 million, or 2 percent of the country’s GDP.
• Rising sea levels and increasing temperatures, coupled with extreme rainfall events and devastating droughts, affect the islands’ ecosystem, economy and population. Sea levels surrounding the Cook Islands have risen by 4 millimetres (0.2 inches) per year since 1993, and are estimated to reach up to 58 centimetres (22.8 inches) by 2090. In Rarotonga and Penrhyn, an island in the nation’s northern group, maximum temperatures have increased at a rate of 0.09° Celsius (32.2° Fahrenheit) per decade. Storm surges leave behind steep bills; in Rarotonga, the damages due to escalated storm surges are expected to cost $40 million over the next five decades.
• Ocean acidification— or carbon pollution that increases the ocean’s acidity —will continue, eroding the coastline and threatening the country’s marine ecosystems. Increases in sea temperatures have led to sharp declines in fish species, endangering the nation’s food supply and economic resources. For Palmerston, a remote Cook Island accessible only by boat, fish reflects the islanders’ only export. The rising sea temperatures have damaged the nation’s pearl production while devastating reefs central to protecting the coast from storm surges.
• The country’s most isolated islands capture populations most vulnerable to the extreme changes in weather patterns. The Pa Enua islands, a cluster of isolated islands in the Cook Islands’ outer rings, lie 1,250 kilometres (776 miles) from the country’s capital. Persistent droughts and aggressive cyclones can leave households without access to fresh water for months on end. Many residents leave their homes, migrating to higher ground in the southern Cook Islands, or overseas.
• Resilience is at the heart of the Cook Islands’ climate adaptation plan. Since 2007, the nation has been conducting a series of on-the-ground adaptation and disaster mitigation programmes. With a focus on all 11 of the Pa Enua islands, these programmes aim to strengthen national coordination surrounding disaster-risk mitigation. Elsewhere, climate-resilient agriculture, such as organic farming, offers the Cook Islands a sustainable means to ensure food security by relying on the natural ecosystem to maintain soil heath. For example, residents use coconut leaves and husks as mulch to keep the soil moist.
• The Cook Islands contribute 0.00012 percent of the world’s carbon emissions—merely a drop in the global bucket. Still, the country remains determined to lead by example, committing to reducing its carbon footprint by transitioning to renewable energy sources by 2020. But the Cook Islands will need financial support to access the technology needed to store cleaner energy.
For the full country profile, visit the the Cook Islands’ page on the Pacific Climate Change Portal.
A Heritage of Resilience
Home to a population of some 600 residents, the islanders on Mangaia— the second largest of the Cook Islands—are no stranger to the wreckage caused by a changing climate.
In 2005, a trail of consecutive cyclones destroyed the Mangaia harbor, cutting off the vital entry point for the island’s trade and economic hub. The natural disaster isolated the island and left the remote community reliant on expensive airfreight to bring in and ship out goods. Reinforcing the infrastructure to climate-proof the harbor became a paramount necessity.
In the years following, and in coordination with climate scientists and engineers, the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change Project funded ongoing efforts to build out a coastal management plan. This effort redesigned the harbor’s structure to improve its operational features and ensure its resilience from cyclones and storm surges. The project developed tools to model wave levels, map out water circulation and project activity before an extreme water event hit. Engineers additionally moved the harbor ramp to a more sheltered location and extended the platform to protect it from water damage.
Mangaia debuted a new, climate-resilient harbor in 2014.
Adapting Forward: National Efforts and International Support
The Cook Islands has launched a series of proactive partnerships to develop, and implement various national action plans.
Launched in 2011, the Joint National Adaptation Plan for Disaster Risk provides a roadmap for the nation to adapt to and mitigate the risk of a changing climate. By 2014, the Cook Islands had unveiled the Coastal Calculator, a spreadsheet that models wave conditions to assess the probability of coastal inundation. These adaptive capabilities equip Cook Island decision makers to protect the nation’s coastal communities.
The Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ratified by the Cook Islands in July 2016; this move, as well as the support the country receives from the United Nations Environment Programme, allows the Cook Islands access to crucial financing for climate adaptation projects.
The country joins a collective effort to limit the globe’s temperature rise from global warming to 1.5° Celsius. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change seeks to limit temperature rise to 2° Celsius.
The Cook Islands ratified the Paris Climate Accord in September 2016.