Groundwater resources of small coral islands are threatened due to short-term and long-term changes in climate. A significant short-term threat is El Niño events, which typically induce a severe months-long drought for many atoll nations in the western and central Pacific regions that exhausts rainwater supply and necessitates the use of groundwater. This study quantifies fresh groundwater resources under both average rainfall and drought conditions for the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), a nation composed solely of atolls and which is severely impacted by El Niño droughts. The atoll island algebraic model is used to estimate the thickness of the freshwater lens for 680 inhabited and uninhabited islands of the RMI, with a focus on the severe 1998 drought. The model accounts for precipitation, island width, hydraulic conductivity of the upper Holocene-age sand aquifer, the depth to the contact between the Holocene aquifer and the lower Pleistocene-age limestone aquifer, and the presence of a reef flat plate underlying the ocean side of the island. Model results are tested for islands that have fresh groundwater data. Results highlight the fragility of groundwater resources for the nation. Average lens thickness during typical seasonal rainfall is approximately 4 m, with only 30% of the islands maintaining a lens thicker than 4.5% and 55% of the islands with a lens less than 2.5 m thick. Thicker lenses typically occur for larger islands, islands located on the leeward side of an atoll due to lower hydraulic conductivity, and islands located in the southern region of the RMI due to higher rainfall rates. During drought, groundwater on small islands (<300 m in width) is completely depleted. Over half (54%) of the islands are classified as “Highly Vulnerable” to drought. Results provide valuable information for RMI water resources planners, particularly during the current 2016 El Niño drought, and similar methods can be used to quantify groundwater availability for other atoll island nations, including the Federated State of Micronesia, Republic of Maldives, and Republic of Kiribati.
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