UH Hilo marine scientist Misaki Takabayashi: Iselle and Pele strengthen our “island resilience”

To us, who live on Hawaiʻi Island with all its awe-inspiring nature, it is easy to understand that the cause-and-effect relationships between our actions and natural processes are indeed reciprocal.


By Misaki Takabayashi

Above video (no narrative): Following Iselle making landfall on Aug 7, 2014, residents in Waiʻōpae coastal community in Puna reached out for help. University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo researchers and students are working with Hawaiʻi County Civil Defense and the State Department of Health to assess the environmental effects of the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall on Hawaiʻi Island in recorded history.

Misaki Takabayashi
Misaki Takabayashi

We are privileged to live on Hawaiʻi Island, an extraordinary spot on Earth. As residents of this island, we have direct and intimate relationships with natural phenomena that make Hawaiʻi Island so extraordinary. The unmatched geographic isolation of the Hawaiian archipelago lets us be neighbors with beautiful animal and plant species that are found nowhere else on the planet. But the same geographic isolation also makes us vulnerable to weather systems and tsunami generated from all corners of the Pacific Rim. Continuous volcanic activities literally provide the very island that we all live on, and as such our lives built around our homes, schools, and workplaces are at a complete mercy of Pele. Even in times of no extreme natural phenomena, our rural island life style with a relatively high level of subsistence fishing, hunting, and farming make us vulnerable to natural cycles.

Ecologists have defined a concept of “ecosystem resilience” as the capacity to maintain equilibrium when influenced by both external and internal perturbations. We see over and over again that ecosystems have an astounding capacity to absorb disturbance and reorganize within so that the essential functions of a system remain sustained. We take this resilience for granted most of the time in our daily lives. Then one day, like the last wobbly piece on top of the Jenga tower, one more stressor is forced, and the ecosystem collapses. This one final stressor can be something catastrophic such as an oil spill in the ocean, or something that steadily builds over time and finally goes over the buffer threshold of an ecosystem like sewage discharging into a coastal ecosystem. Ecologists have identified some essential pillars that hold up the ecosystem resilience, including high biological diversity and abundance of keystone species. These factors often appear to be removed from us humans. Surely, as the dominant species of Earth, humans play a key roll in resilience of any ecosystem. To us, who live on Hawaiʻi Island with all its awe-inspiring nature, it is easy to understand that the cause-and-effect relationships between our actions and natural processes are indeed reciprocal.

Evidence of such reciprocal relationships became glaringly visible in the aftermath of Hurricane Iselle in the Puna District. On land, the albizia trees, a species that has evolved outside of Hawaiʻi under a different set of evolutionary selection pressures and more fragile than native tree species that have survived in this place for generations, fell in large masses and caused costly damages in residences and power and telecommunication infrastructure. We humans introduced albizia to Hawaiʻi. In the ocean, we have witnessed broken fragments of coral in the Waiʻōpae tide pools that fringe the coastline that received much damage by storm surges caused by Hurricane Iselle. Ironically, our research has shown Waiʻōpae has some of the highest prevalence of coral diseases in Hawaiʻi. Had the corals been unhealthier and less abundant at Waiʻōpae, the unmitigated wave energy would have likely caused more damage to the waterfront homes. The power of coral reefs to mitigate wave energy from shoreline damages has been demonstrated even in most powerful events such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2009 tsunami in Sāmoa. We humans certainly have the ability to choose not to protect coral reefs around our island.

When human actions are so intimately integral to the ecosystem resilience, the capacity of human community to recover from a natural disaster, so that our ability to take care of the rest of the ecosystem is maintained, should also be considered as part of the ecosystem resilience. Perhaps we can consider the ecosystem resilience inclusive of maintenance of a functional human community as a broader “island resilience” in our case. How many of us on Hawaiʻi Island felt helpless, in the nerve-racking yet eerily quiet hours before Hurricane Iselle made a landfall, waiting for the inevitable? The Puna community, still on its road to recovery from the hurricane, is now facing another inevitable, the lava from Kīlauea flowing through the district. As we witness, with great reverence, the powerful forces of Mother Nature travel through our Hawai‘i Island ecosystems, our ability to help family, friends, and neighbors, as well as the non-human co-inhabitants of the ecosystem recover will strengthen our island resilience in its entirety.

Misaki Takabayashi is an associate professor of marine science at UH Hilo, research faculty with UH Hilo CREST, EPSCoR Hawaiʻi, and UH Sea Grant. Takabayashi, her colleagues, and students at UH Hilo are conducting research to assess the environmental impacts of Hurricane Iselle in Puna (visit lab website for updates). In 2012, Takabayashi and a team of student researchers launched two websites with information and data on their findings from a seven-year project studying coral in Hawai‘i Island waters — link to Coral Health AtlasShe received her bachelor of science and master of science in marine science from the University of Sydney, Australia, and doctor of philosophy in marine studies from the University of Queensland, Australia.