Climate Science: Hawaiian Context

Waiuli Sunset
Photo: Sunset at Waiʻuli. Mauka to makai (mountain summit to the sea)Hawaiʻi Island is characterized by diverse climate variability that drives an equally rare diversity of ecosystems and biota within close proximity. It is, therefore, host to many complex shifts resulting from contemporary climate change. Yet for centuries, it has been a forum of human adaptation through socio-ecological change, particularly through traditional Hawaiian culture. Hawaiʻi Island is, therefore, a revealing place within which to improve our understanding of contemporary climate shifts while building upon long standing capacities of cultural adaptation to change. Photo credit: Scott Laursen, PI-CASC

Climate Science

Climate vs. Weather

Climate science studies the physical components of the atmosphere and their interactions over long periods of time (decades to thousands of years), as well as the mechanisms through which atmospheric processes shift over such time intervals. Whereas climate science helps us understand what we can generally expect as far as rain, wind, clouds, or temperature in a specific region over long time periods, weather is the immediate status of these variables in a specific location or their status over a very short period of time, such as the current temperature or the temperature over a few days or weeks.

Clear Evidence of Change

“The climate has changed many times in the geologic past due to natural causes — including volcanic activity, changes in the sun’s intensity, fluctuations in Earth's orbit, and other factors — but none of these can account for the current rise in global temperatures”
(Union of Concerned Scientists web page on global warming,, accessed January 10, 2017).

“The Scientific evidence is clear. Within the scientific community, there is no debate. An overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and that human activity is the primary cause”
(Union of Concerned Scientists web page on global warming,, accessed January 10, 2017).

What is at Stake in the Pacific?

"Island communities in the Pacific and the Caribbean are isolated, trade-dependent, and ocean-oriented cultures that are especially vulnerable to climate change. Marine and coastal ecosystems of the islands are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Sea-level rise, increasing water temperatures, rising storm intensity, coastal inundation and flooding from extreme events, beach erosion, ocean acidification, increased incidences of coral disease, and increased invasions by non-native species are among the threats that endanger the ecosystems that provide safety, sustenance, economic viability, and cultural and traditional values to island communities"
(Fletcher 2013: 214-215).

The Socio-Ecological Setting of Hawaiʻi Island

Hawaiʻi is a remote rural island encompassing 4,024 square miles in the Central Pacific and rising from sea level to nearly 14,000 ft in elevation with five volcanic mountains (see Fig.1 from the Manager Needs Assessment section). The heterogeneous terrain is characterized by spatially unique climate variability that drives an equally rare diversity of ecosystems and biota within close proximity and thereby a distinct array of climate change impacts. Trade winds and resulting orographic rainfall and cloud formation interact with a temperature inversion layer and island topography to form an island resembling a miniature continent (Juvik and Juvik 1998).

Communities on the island are highly localized, experience a wide range of ecosystems and climate regimes, and are characterized by extensive histories of indigenous Hawaiian and immigrant cultures (McMillen et al. 2017). These highly complex geopolitical landscapes and seascapes result in a diversity of landowners and political arenas interacting in close proximity on the island, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), federal, state, county, and private organizations. This socio-ecological assemblage makes the island a representative site for other locations globally that are working to be resilient and adaptive under a changing climate.

Honuapo Loko Ia
Photo: Honuʻapo, Kaʻū. Loko iʻa (traditional Hawaiian fishponds) have been a foundation of cultural tradition and sustenance for centuries and remain the center of strong support from local communities and cultural practitioners. Loko iʻa managers can benefit from near-future forecasting of ecosystem shifts, such as changes in ground water flow, nutrient delivery, or salinity, that may result from climate change. Such research efforts directly inform adaptive management plans. Photo credit: Ryan McClymont, USGS

Climate Science in Hawaiʻi

Climate change threats to resource managers on the Hawaiian Islands involve a wide range of impacts across the island’s landscapes and seascapes. Some of these impacts include

  • sea level rise (Reynolds et al. 2015)
  • potential increase in storm intensity (Chen and Chu 2014; IPCC 2014) with decreasing and variable annual rainfall (Chu and Chen 2005) threatening human infrastructure and communities (IPCC 2014)

Examples of further impacts on human communities include:

  • inundating storm and waste water systems (Rotzoll and Fletcher 2012)
  • increasing invasive species (Jacobi and Berkowitz, personal communications)
  • increasing coastal erosion (Vitousek et al. 2010; Fletcher et al. 2012; Anderson et al. 2015) threatening traditional Hawaiian cultural sites and cultural practices along the coast (Vitousek et al. 2010; Marrack and O’Grady 2014)
  • increasing erosion (Vitousek et al. 2010; Fletcher et al. 2012; Anderson et al. 2015) causing potential human health risks through shifts in near-shore water chemistry and bacteria levels (Strauch et al. 2014)

Climate change will also impact ecological systems through:

  • increasing reef acidification (Anthony et al. 2008)
  • shifting groundwater flows (Rotzoll and Fletcher 2012) altering nutrient flux into coastal and nearshore systems
  • increasing wildfire size and occurrence (Trauernicht et al. 2015; Frazier and Giambelluca 2016)
  • altering forest community composition through invasive species colonization (Vorsino et al. 2014; Camp et al. in press)
  • altering the distribution and abundance of native forest bird populations due to a rising mosquito-avian disease line (Atkinson et al. 2014; Liao et al. 2015; Paxton et al. 2016)
Molokai Hoe 2015
Photo: The start of the 63rd annual Molokaʻi Hoe outrigger canoe race, October 2015; an event defined by collaboration. To excel in this 40+ mile, 6-hour outrigger canoe race between the islands of Molokaʻi and Oahu, crews must paddle “as one”. This means that paddlers must have extensive experience on the open ocean together, instinctive awareness of one another's abilities, and moment to moment flexibility to the shifting and unforgiving physical conditions of the kai (ocean). The collaborative networks and in-person experience that define the Molokaʻi Hoe are also fundamental guiding principles of our MCC program. Photo credit:

Our Approach: Adaptation through Local Networks and Collaborative Science

The Psychology of Shifting Human Behavior

Research in psychology and cognitive science has made clear that humans do not make decisions according to predominantly or exclusively rational, analytical capacities. Rather, human behavior is more profoundly based upon intrinsic affective (emotional) and experiential capacities that are driven by person-to-person and person-to-nature interactions, group norms and values, individual values, perceptions, instincts, intuitions, and related visceral factors that collectively define one's identity or worldview (Ingold 2011; Jones et al. 2011; Kahan et al. 2012; van der Linden et al. 2015; Jones et al. 2016, Amel et al. 2017, Laursen et al. 2018). For this reason, our program is designed to build upon existing in-person professional networks locally through the process of knowledge co-production. We feel that directly and regularly supporting person-to-person and person-to-nature relationships (i.e., situated or embodied knowledge) within local networks harnesses multiple knowledge forms and utilizes a wide range of capacities and place-based experiences that collectively exert strong influence on human behavior (Ingold 2011). If we want to build adaptive capacity through major socio-ecological shifts and establish increasingly sustainable lifestyles, it is imperative that academic institutions account for and directly engage the full breadth of analytical and intrinsic capacities that drive human behavior.

In-Person Collaboration: research products that influence human behavior and build adaptive capacity

The MCC seeks to empower cultural adaptation amid contemporary climate change impacts by building upon existing, in-person relationships and rooting research efforts within strong local manager networks that manifest trust (see our Manager Context section). Employing knowledge co-production within our growing professional networks, the MCC supports research products that have increased probability of being readily utilized by managers and policy professionals on the ground due to the direct involvement of such professionals throughout the scientific process and their vested interest in the collaborative products that develop. In this manner, the MCC embeds the scientific process more deeply within specific biocultural landscapes/seascapes, uniting manager and researcher networks through highly collaborative research pathways and growing local adaptive capacities.


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