Climate change research funded by NASA; UH Hilo students to investigate coastal erosion

The purpose of the NASA funding is to equip students with the skills necessary to assess and analyze the impacts of sea level rise upon coastal ecosystems.

Two people on sandy area using measuring equipment.
With NASA funding, UH Hilo graduate students will lead baseline surveys and mapping of coastal ecosystems across Hawaiʻi Island. Courtesy photo from Haunani Kāne.

By Jordan Hemmerly.

Haunani Kāne pictured
Haunani Kāne

A partnership between the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and Arizona State University (ASU) is bringing an innovative science program to Hawai‘i Island. The research, conducted by students investigating coastal erosion from astronomical distances as well as up close at sea level, is funded by NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project. MUREP supports underrepresented populations in doing research critical to understanding Earth and the greater galaxy’s most challenging natural phenomena.

The project is being led by Haunani Kāne, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at UH Hilo; Roberta “Robin” Martin, an associate professor of geography at ASU; and John Burns, an assistant professor of marine science at UH Hilo and founder of the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis Laboratory (MEGA Lab), which will serve as the hub of the research.

Robin Martin pictured.
Robin Martin

“The way this project is integrated is one of the most important aspects of its approach,” says Kāne, who notes NASA’s commitment to diversity and equal opportunity. “We are minority serving institutions who have decided to share resources to mentor UH Hilo and ASU students, all of whom will have access to professors at both universities.”

The project will support a minimum of two undergraduate and two graduate students at UH Hilo, and one doctoral candidate at ASU. The UH Hilo students will lead baseline mapping and analysis of coastal vulnerability. The graduate students will be assisted by and mentor a minimum of two UH Hilo undergraduate students to maximize research training for students of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island ancestry at UH Hilo.

John Burns pictured
John Burns

Participants will gain field and lab skills by mapping various elevations on Hawaiʻi Island using satellite-generated sea surface maps, coupled with local tide gauges and drone data, to produce information about coastal vulnerability to sea level rise.

Burns will mentor students while hosting space in the MEGA Lab for students to work on the project. “It means a lot to me to be a part of such an outstanding, committed, and proactive collaboration,” he says.

The study

The overarching goal of the NASA project, titled, “Quantifying Vulnerability to Sea Level Rise Across Multiple Coastal Typologies,” is to equip graduate and undergraduate students at Minority Serving Institutions with the skills to assess and analyze the impacts of sea level rise upon coastal ecosystems.


The proposal seeks to address the impact of climate change, particularly sea level rise and coastal inundation, on land/ocean interfaces and nearshore ecosystems such as corals and reefs. The project uses the Island of Hawaiʻi as a case study regarding how the vulnerability of nearshore aquatic, intertidal, and coastal ecosystems will accelerate when sea level rise exceeds a critical elevation point.


Co-principal investigator Kāne has demonstrated in previous work that the vulnerability of aquatic and coastal habitat to sea level rise flooding will accelerate when the height of the sea surface exceeds a critical elevation.

Building on that work, the current project will use Hawai‘i Island as a case study to measure vulnerability of coastal erosion caused by sea level changes, and relay information about how that may impact natural resources and island communities.

The researchers are building on data that shows rising sea level is caused by climate change and the expansion of sea water as it forms. Changes in sea level can cause erosion leading to flooding, total loss of habitat, and contamination of an area.

This is dangerous to low-lying communities, reef systems, and biological preservation. By mapping and measuring areas island-wide, the researchers hope to share information about safety and Earth’s processes, as well as contribute to knowledge of natural landmarks and coastal resources.

“We are also working with the local government to determine a process for Hawai‘i county to include this data in their future planning,” says Martin.

“You can think of this work as a sort of scale, we are scaling up from the coast,” she adds. “First, we are using drones, then we’re using layers of remote sensed data, all to generate a giant map.”


Aerial of rocky coast with two measurement markers.
Unmanned aerial system (UAS or drone) surveys, like the above image reflects, will be used to map seasonal highwater events along coastal ecosystems on Hawaiʻi Island. Photo courtesy of Haunani Kāne.

Remote sensing detects the energy that is reflected from Earth and collects information about it from a distance. The process can return data about radiation, hurricanes, changes in ocean circulation, and much more. Remote sensors are often mounted to satellites.

“We are planning on using satellite data provided by NASA for sea surface maps and coastal vegetation cover,” says Martin.

Kāne says one of the greatest challenges in collecting data is dealing with light reflected off the sea’s surface. “There are waves and other impactful factors at play,” she explains.

Hands-on learning

Kāne and Martin both say they are excited to see students gain hands-on experience and field skills throughout the project. “I’m excited to equip students with skills in assessing and analyzing the impacts of sea level rise on coastal ecosystems and promote wellbeing,” says Martin.

“We are trying to build courses that are online, but also can have field components,” she adds. “It is our hope that this new partnership between ASU and UH Hilo will reach as many interested students as possible.”

“Everyone’s desire to work together is the backbone of our strength,” she says.


About the author of this story: Jordan Hemmerly is earning her bachelor’s degree in marine science at UH Hilo. She is a research assistant at the Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis (MEGA) Lab where she works in coral reef research.