Using local knowledge to understand climate variability in the Cook Islands, January 2015

Prepared by: Teina Rongo and Celine Dyer, Climate Change Cook Islands, Office of the Prime Minister

Executive Summary
Climate change has been the topic of much research in the last few decades, however information on its impacts — particularly on remote small island nations — remain scant. Yet, through centuries of observation of their natural environment, Pacific islanders hold a wealth of knowledge of the sky, land, and sea. Sadly, with a shift towards a more western lifestyle on some of these islands in recent decades, this local knowledge is at risk of being lost because it is not passed down to younger generations; recognizing this, Climate Change Cook Islands of the Office of the Prime Minister conducted a questionnaire survey on most of the Cook Islands from January to April 2014. The aim of the survey was to collect information on changes in various biological and physical systems over people’s lifetimes to understand climate variability in this region.

Causal factors for some changes recorded seem complex and difficult to explain with the limited information available. Nevertheless, a large number of changes seemingly coincided with hydroclimatic shifts associated with the well-documented phase shift of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation/Pacific Decadal Oscillation (IPO/PDO) in 1976/77 that affected rainfall distribution in the region; this shift coincided largely with the loss or the decline of many important floral and faunal species on the islands in both the terrestrial and marine environment. We note that the recent shift in the IPO/PDO to the negative phase would bring less rainfall to the northern group, and therefore certain measures need to be taken to minimize the adverse impacts (e.g., water shortages) this shift may have on island communities there.

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