The hydrological response of surface water to recent climate variability: A remote sensing case study from the central tropical Pacific

Melinda C. Higley, Jessica L. Conroy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


For small tropical islands with limited freshwater resources, understanding how island hydrology is influenced by regional climate is important, considering projected hydroclimate and sea level changes as well as growing populations dependent on limited groundwater resources. However, the relationship between climate variability and hydrologic variability for many tropical islands remains uncertain due to local hydroclimatic data scarcity. Here, we present a case study from Kiritimati, Republic of Kiribati (2°N, 157°W), utilizing the normalized difference vegetation index to investigate variability in island surface water area, an important link between climate variability and groundwater storage. Kiritimati surface water area varies seasonally, following wet and dry seasons, and interannually, due to hydroclimate variability associated with the El Niño/Southern Oscillation. The NIÑO3.4 sea surface temperature index, satellite-derived precipitation, precipitation minus evaporation, and local sea level all had significant positive correlations with surface water area. Lagged correlations show sea level changes and precipitation influence surface water area up to 6 months later. Differences in the timing of surface water area changes and variable climate-surface water area correlations in island subregions indicate that surface hydrology on Kiritimati is not uniform in response to climate variations. Rather, the magnitude of the ocean–atmosphere anomalies and island–ocean connectivity determine the extent to which sea level and precipitation control surface water area. The very strong 2015–2016 El Niño event led to the largest surface water area measured in the 18-year data set. Surface water area decreased to pre-event values in a similarly rapid manner (<6 months) after both the very strong 2015–2016 event and the 2009–2010 moderate El Niño event. Future changes in the frequency and amplitude of interannual hydroclimate variability as well as seasonal duration will thus alter surface water coverage on Kiritimati, with implications for freshwater resources, flooding, and drought.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2227-2239
Number of pages13
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number16
StatePublished - Jul 30 2019


  • ENSO, hydroclimate, island
  • Kiritimati
  • NDVI
  • central tropical Pacific
  • freshwater
  • surface water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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