Climate Controls on Precipitation Patterns in French Polynesia


French Polynesia encompasses a total area of 5.5 million squared kilometers across which 130 islands are grouped in five major archipelagos: The Society Islands, the Marquesas Islands, The Gambier Islands, The Tuamotus Islands and the Tubuai Islands [1], [2]. This vast area of the south Pacific is very dynamic in terms of the atmospheric features that influence its seasonal and long-term weather conditions. Climate phenomena such as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ) and El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) control and influence rainfall, water availability, sea surface temperature and the frequency and strength of tropical cyclones [3], [4], [5]. Because of these important socio-economical implications of climatic variability, this Atlas entry aims to elucidate the processes that play a role in regional climate, including possible future changes in the context of global warming and describe current policies and strategic plans to manage water resources in French Polynesia.

The wide latitudinal range over which the islands of French Polynesia are located (7°S - 28°S) partially explains the different climate regimes and rainfall patterns observed between archipelagos. The Marquesas, located at the northeastern limit of French Polynesia, exhibit no seasonal temperature variability due to their proximity to the Equator but show marked patterns in terms of rainfall (humid season: January-August , dry season: August-December) and are the driest islands in French Polynesia (average rainfall: ~1300 mm/yr; Fig 1a)[6]. The Society Islands present a different precipitation pattern, with heavy rainfall from November to April (peaking in December and January; Fig 1b) and a yearly average of 1700mm/yr. [7]. The Tuamotus experience lower precipitation than the Society Islands (~1550 mm/yr) but the same seasonal pattern (Fig 1c)[8]. Climate in the Gambier Islands is cooler and it presents relatively constant and high precipitation year-round (~ 1900 mm/yr) with low solar insolation due to its southern latitude (Fig 1d). The Austral Islands, the southernmost archipelago of French Polynesia, are characterized by high precipitation year around (~2600mm/yr; Fig 1e), temperatures below 25°C, high relative humidity, and constant strong winds and high ocean swells[9].

Figure 1. Multi-annual rainfall averages (mm/yr) and seasonal patterns for all archipelagos in French Polynesia. a)Marquesas, b)Society, c)Tuamotus, d)Gambier, e)Australs. Values on top of each figure represent average annual rainfall (mm/yr).[10]

One of the most important features that affects not only the climate of French Polynesia but that of the entire world is the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ; Fig 2)[11]. Along the tropics, high solar radiation warms up the surface of the Ocean and causes the overlying humid air to rise; at the same time, prevailing Northeasterly and Southeasterly trade winds converge near the Equator, causing deep convection of warm, humid air and promoting cloud formation and high precipitation[12]. The location of this band of clouds varies throughout the year between 5°N and 10°N following the apparent motion of the sun: it reaches its northernmost position in July-August and its southernmost position in December-January[13]. The reasons for this north-south asymmetry are not yet clear; some attribute it to the orography or geographic relief of South America while others to air-sea interactions and heat transport across the tropics[14],[15].

The position of the ITCZ plays a determinant role in the precipitation patterns and water availability on many countries, therefore considerable research effort has been focused on elucidating future shifts of the ITCZ due to global warming[16],[17],[18]. A recent study of lake sediments along the tropics reveals that the ITCZ was south of its modern location during most of the past millennium and suggest that this movement may be related to lower temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere[19]. Under this hypothesis, global warming might cause the ITCZ to shift northward, hence reducing rainfall quantities and water availability for many countries, including the islands of French Polynesia.

Figure 2. Climatology (Dec-Feb) of precipitation rates in the tropical Pacific and Convergence zones and average location of the main climate features: Intertropical Convergence zone (ITCZ) and the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ).[20]

Another major atmospheric system, perhaps more relevant in the context of most French Polynesian Islands, is the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ; Fig 2). The SPCZ is characterized by a band of low-level convergence, clouds and strong convective rainfall that extends from the equatorial western Pacific southeastwards towards French Polynesia, reaching approximately 30°S, 120°W (Fig 2)[21],[22],[23]. A consolidated theory explaining the SPCZ origin and maintenance is still lacking. A “western control” approach considers the tropical portion of the SPCZ as a result of the high sea surface temperatures and deep convection of humid low-level winds in the western Pacific; under this scenario, the origin and orientation of the southeastern subtropical portion is due to the response of the atmosphere to heat sources near the Equator [24],[25],[26]. Conversely an “eastern control” approach attributes the origin and orientation of the SPCZ to geographic features of South America (i.e., The Andes). Under this scenario, The Andes cause a dry, cool zone in the eastern Pacific that expands to the northwest due to the trade winds and inhibits convection to the northeastern side of the SPCZ (Fig 3.)[27].

Figure 3. Sketch summarizing some of the main processes that explain the “eastern control” theory of the SPCZ.[28]

On a seasonal scale, the SPCZ is more active during austral summer (December-February): it reaches its maximum extension and the rainfall zone moves south[29],meaning more intense precipitation over some of the islands of French Polynesia that lie within its location (i.e., Society and Tuamotus islands; Fig 4a). On an inter-annual scale, the location and intensity of the SPCZ is strongly related to El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO)[30].

ENSO is a naturally occurring climatic fluctuation that arises in the ocean-atmosphere system of the tropical Pacific. During the warm phase (El Niño), the easterly trade winds weaken and so does the Pacific Equatorial Current. Warm waters of the western Pacific migrate eastward and rainfall diminishes on Australia and the western Pacific islands[31]. In the cold phase of ENSO (La Niña), the opposite happens: trade winds strengthen and so does the convective activity in western Pacific which causes higher precipitation. During La Niña, strong trade winds make the SPCZ to move southwestward; during El Niño, weaker trade winds allow the SPCZ to shift northeastward[32],[33],[34].

Because of the strong rainfall gradients created by the SPCZ, displacements of its position drastically affect hydroclimatic conditions and frequency of extreme weather events (e.g., droughts, floods, tropical cyclones) in the region[35]. It has been observed that reduced rainfall during strong El Niños can induce forest fires and droughts on south Pacific islands and because the SPCZ acts as a cyclone graveyard, a northern movement also increases the probability of tropical cyclones hitting French Polynesia[36],[37].

Figure 4. Climatological December-February (4a) and June-August (4b) mean rainfall rate (mm/day) and sea surface temperature along the SPCZ.[38]

Due to important repercussions on the social, biological and economic domains of many countries in the south Pacific (e.g,. floods, draughts, tropical cyclones) recent research has focused on understanding how the SPCZ might respond and behave under a global warming scenario[39]. Some researchers conclude that extreme northeastward shifts of the SPCZ are becoming more frequent and suggest that the increased temperatures and the west-east movement of the Pacific Equatorial Warm Pool due to global warming is the causative factor[40],[41],[42]. Under this scenario droughts and tropical cyclones could be more frequent in the Society and Tuamotus islands. Furthermore, while some studies have observed an expansion of the SPCZ to the southeast and relate that shift with strengthened westerly winds and eastward expansion of the Pacific Warm Pool[43], others predict a westward contraction associated with strengthened trade winds and increased mean and maximum precipitation within the SPCZ region[44]. In addition, the uncertainty regarding the future frequency and intensity of ENSO under a global warming scenario make predictions for the SPCZ even more complex and unclear[45].


Freshwater Systems and Practices: Lessons from Pacific Islands and Recommendations for French Polynesia

The present day disparities between predictions of the future behavior of the SPCZ highlight the need for continuous and focused research aimed at elucidating the complexity and processes at play. Whether global warming will bring more precipitation, stronger droughts, coral bleaching or tropical cyclones, small island nations of the South Pacific, such as French Polynesia, will definitely be affected in one way or another. Clarity regarding these future conditions will provide the much needed insight, information and tools for policy makers to address appropriate courses of action and regional adaptation strategies.

The many Pacific islands are beginning to form collaborative efforts in order to prepare for the effects of climate change.  One such group is the Applied Geoscience and Technology Division (SOPAC) of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). Their goal is to “Apply geoscience and technology to realize new opportunities for improving the livelihoods of Pacific communities”[46]. The idea is for Pacific islands to better monitor and assess their natural resources and spread awareness about potential risks due to climate change. Low lying atolls are highly vulnerable to droughts and salt water inundation because they are reliant on rainwater and groundwater from the freshwater lens[47].

A key characteristic of these Pacific Island cultures is their resilience, which is rooted in traditional family values and social structures. Many of the members of SPC are not actually from the French Polynesian islands (or other parts of Polynesia). Native Polynesian Islanders will respect policy and cooperate only if policy makers proceed in keeping certain moral principles. The SOPAC division’s plan lists Polynesian-appreciated values to keep in mind[48]. These values involve respecting the dynamic nature of the different cultures on the different islands. Only unbiased, scientifically-supported advice will be used to make changes. Also, partnerships will be chosen with only the well-being of the islanders in mind. Similarly, integrity and transparency are at the heart of this strategic plan[49].

Climate change has become a grave concern in the Pacific islands region. This is especially the case for developing, low lying atolls. These islands rely upon a delicate balance of rain and groundwater[50]. Since islands are at the mercy of naturally occurring freshwater stores, both too much and too little rainfall can be detrimental[51]. Increases in ENSO events bring about droughts, especially to the more western islands (as the warm, moist weather shifts east)[52]. The vulnerability of water resources was evident in the Marshall Islands after the especially harsh El Nino in 1997[53]. The following period between January and April of 1998 brought about a devastating drought; the region received 8% of the normal rainfall. There were over 1,000 cases of dehydration, drought-related skin diseases, and respiratory infections[54].

In cases like that of the Marshall Islands, rainwater is soon depleted, leaving only groundwater.  However, over pumping the water lens risks saltwater contamination from the ocean[55]. This renders the water non-potable with the additional effect of killing the islands crops[56].

The water lens is vulnerable to both extremes, so flooding can also contaminate the groundwater.  In 2008, the Marshall Islands experienced this other extreme: flooding[57]. At this point in time, the Marshall Islands were experiencing higher-than-normal sea level. This anomaly was due to a combination of La Nina conditions, plus the long-term sea level rise affecting the entire Pacific Island region. Therefore, when the unusually high tides coincided with a low-pressure system, bringing about large swells, the islands experienced significant salt water inundation[58]. These conditions lead to contamination of aquifers, wells, wetlands, and farms[59]. After experiencing multiple weather disruptions to groundwater, the Marshall Islands, along with other Pacific Islands, decided it is critical to establish integrated management of rain and groundwater resources[60].

Firstly, islands must develop an effective monitoring system of their groundwater resources[61]. This is essential to preventing overdrawing from wells. Additionally, reverse-osmosis water-purification systems can be utilized in dire situations, such as that previously mentioned in the Marshall Islands. Current systems can produce up to 125 gallons a day[62].

Collaboration amongst the islands is starting to get people working together to address similar threats due to the changing climate. However, cooperation is still one of the biggest obstacles in implementing new policies. Mainly, this has to do with maritime boundaries and conflicting EEZ’s. SOPAC’s plan notes that political-boundary conflicts have caused “significant lost opportunities and challenges”[63]. This is cause for a lot of disagreement because of valuable marine resources (e.g. hydrocarbons, deep sea mineral deposits, fishery stocks). For this reason governance and environmental action gets delayed by such disputes. Currently, such organizations are working on establishing sustainable economic growth in order to implement the aforementioned groundwater monitoring systems and water purification systems[64]. Strategies include maximizing fisheries development, new domestic fisheries, protecting biodiversity from deep sea trawling, and more aquaculture management[65].

SOPAC advocates more research in order to better understand and project climate change and shifting weather patterns. The priority in many islands is to develop a better fresh water system. These small islands have limited fresh water as it is, and natural disasters make it worse (e.g. storms and El-Nino/La Nina events)[66].

The plan put in place by SOPAC seems to be more hypothetical than actually organizing the specific actions which must take place.  The plan points out what should be discussed between the different islands, and what would be the ideal situation for everyone.  There is still the matter of the islands organizing and carrying out what SOPAC has proposed here.  The addition of great, non-biased, scientific evidence of shifting climate patterns in response to climate change could be pivotal in greater cooperation and flexibility among the islands.


Summary of Field Work Observations

We spoke with various citizens and public officials regarding water availability, sources, current challenges and future plans in three different islands in French Polynesia: Tahiti, Rangiroa and Nuku Hiva.

Papeete, Tahiti

In Pape’ete we talked to Manuela Iaufoques, who works in the water department of the Center for Hygiene and Public Health. According to Iaufoques, the main sources of water in Tahiti are groundwater and river catchments. She mentioned that water availability is not a big problem in Pape’ete since their supply is guaranteed by the pristine waters of the Fatuaua Valley and the quality is ensured by the only potable water treatment plant on the island[67]. In contrast, she highlighted that other towns such as Papara suffer from frequent shortages and in Taravao strong rainfall often harms water quality. We also learned from Iaufoques that approximately 90% of the population of Tahiti has access to water[68]. Interestingly, she also said that in her lifetime the rainy season is becoming longer and more intense and that she has witnessed how people have started using rain water catchment even though drinking such water is not allowed by the local government[69]. Finally, she mentioned that the average water consumption is about 300 liters per day (80 CFP (~ 1 USD) per cubic meter) and is decreasing since they installed measurement devices in households recently[70].

A second person we talked to was Arhan Vaimeho, a local farmer who was selling vegetables in the Marche. Due to language barriers we were only able to learn that she uses water straight from rivers to irrigate her fields and overall she did not seem concerned when we asked her about water shortages[71].

Finally we talked to Elvis Tetiarahi, a local artisan selling handcrafts at the market. Elvis shared that he is proud to have the best potable water in all French Polynesia and mentioned that he pays approximately 30 dollars per month for water consumption in his house[72]. Interestingly, he strongly asserted how the current government was taking action to ensure water quality and to extend the water availability to others towns in Tahiti; however, he did not specify what initiatives were being taken[73].

Overall, our field work observations in Tahiti gave us the impression that water availability is not a prominent issue in Pape’ete. The people we talked to did not show any concerns and were pleased with the current situation regarding water resources.


Upon our arrival in the atoll Rangiroa, we met with two gentlemen in the village of Avatoru who shared information regarding the atoll’s freshwater supply. Our first interview was with Thierry Auber who ran a boutique in the village. He explained how rain catchments were common throughout the atoll. Rainwater was strictly used for household chores (e.g. laundry, dishes, bathing). Bottled water from Tahiti was the main source of drinking water[74]. Auber then pointed us in the direction of a general store called Chez Daniel. Here, we met with the owner, Daniel Herlerre, who is an active member of the local government. Herlerre added detail to what was learned from Auber, as well as provided us new information. Herlerre explained how rain catchments were common, but the government did not allow this water to be drunk because it is below sanitary standards[75]. As Auber stated before, people of Rangiroa must rely on bottled water. Herlerre went on to explain the use of reverse osmosis systems throughout the atoll. The hotels on the island have privately owned systems which are for hotel guests only. However, Herlerre told us that about two years prior, the local government put in a communal reverse osmosis system[76]. It is located in Avatoru, to which residents can travel to pay for water. However, this system has not become popular with island residents because of the inconvenience involved with commute. Additionally, the water was not less expensive than continuing to use bottled water. Herlerre expressed some concerns over the eventual success of the communal reverse-osmosis system[77]. The system involves a lot of mechanical maintenance, which is a struggle for Avatoru due to the lack of availability of equipment and properly trained personnel[78].

While the reverse-osmosis system is not currently efficient, at least there are concerted efforts underway in providing the atoll with its own water. The impression given by Herlerre was that Rangiroa will continue to rely on imported bottled water for the time being.

Nuku Hiva

Our visit in Nuku Hiva provided us some understanding of the island’s current hydrology. We were very fortunate to be received in Nuku Hiva by several deputy mayors of Nuku Hiva. They agreed to hold a meeting with us in order to discuss various environmental topics and issues as they relate to the island. They provided a very informative presentation that addressed freshwater sources, concerns, and future hydrology plans.

Nuku Hiva consists of five valleys, four of which get their freshwater out of rivers from their respective mountains. We met the deputy mayors in Taiohae Valley which is the one valley on the island whose mountain water is not potable. This poses a problem as it is also the most heavily populated valley on the island. Residents of Taihae Valley are able to use the water for household chores; however, they must travel to one of three locations in the valley to pump drinkable freshwater for free from the islands water lens.

According to the deputy mayors’ information, the island is self-sufficient in terms of water. However, the French government has mandated that Taiohae Valley must be able to provide drinkable water to each individual home by the year 2015. Therefore, there are two possible plans currently being debated by the government in Nuku Hiva to meet France’s request. Both options consist of the same basic idea, to run pipelines from neighboring valleys whose water is potable. The first option is cheaper because it requires a shorter distance to transport the water. However, the government is predicting that in the near future people will begin settling the other adjacent valley. For this reason, some believe it may be more economical in the long term to begin building the pipeline infrastructure out of this valley. It would be more expensive because it is a greater distance to transport water to Taiohae Valley, but the infrastructure would already be there should people migrate to this valley.

Updating their water systems will be a large undertaking; however, in comparison to other Pacific islands, they seem stable. While Taiohae Valley cannot drink their river water, they reported no issues or shortages with respect to their supply of ground water.

Juan Mayorga, Universidad de los Andes
Beauregard Marsh, University of Miami



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How to cite this entry:
Juan Mayorga and Beauregard Marsh. 2014. "Climate Controls on Precipitation Patterns in French Polynesia." Atlas on Sustainability of Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems. Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. Web. [Date Accessed] <html>