Hawaii – A Tale in Two Parts

Part II: The Landscape

Although my primary goal in going to Hawaii was to visit the Mauna Lao Observatory to learn about atmospheric carbon dioxide (see previous blog post), I was also curious about the impact of our excess CO2 on this slice of Paradise.

When I arrived in Oahu it was mid-winter and since my first day there was quite rainy I needed to forgo the beach for an indoor activity. I chose the Waikiki Aquarium. I was already aware that oceans are absorbing some of the excess carbon dioxide humans are discharging into the atmosphere and I was hoping the aquarium might be able to shed a little more light on how this was specifically affecting marine and plant life in the Pacific.

Despite it being a small aquarium I stayed several hours reading all the wall text looking for clues about the health of the Pacific marine world. It was easy to linger since it was raining outside and the undulating jellyfish and the delicate sea horses mesmerized me.

The coral in the aquarium was gorgeous! I have not seen a lot of coral in my life but I was impressed with the variety of types showcasing a brilliant array of colors. The soft coral reminded me of showgirls, swaying seductively with the aquarium’s machine-generated currents.

Although there was a display about how monk seal populations are in decline due to various factors, there unfortunately was no mention of how climate change is taking its toll on this region.

When the skies cleared and I finally got in the ocean several days later I was dismayed by how unhealthy much of the coral reef actually is. I snorkeled in three different locations: Kealakekua Bay and Kahalu’u Beach (both near Kona on The Big Island) and also in Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve – a protected marine reserve in Honolulu, Oahu.

The fish may have been pretty but I was too distracted by the marked difference between how damaged this coral looked as compared to what I’d seen just days before in the aquarium. There have been several “bleaching” incidences over the years, most recently in the northern Hawaiian Islands that have taken their toll on the state’s coral reefs. The areas I was exploring are not the most damaged and yet they did not look the picture of good health either.

I contacted a group called “The Coral Reef Alliance” (CORAL) to see what information they could share. I did not get to meet with any of their representatives, but Liz Foote, the Hawaii Field Manager for CORAL sent me links to some interesting articles on how climate change is affecting Hawaii.

Coral is very sensitive to changes in ocean temperatures. With global warming causing the oceans as well as air temperatures to rise, much of the world’s coral has become stressed leading to “bleaching” of these fragile polyps.  Other climate changes that negatively impact coral are the rising sea level and more frequent and severe storms. I’ll be writing soon about my visit to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia so in that post will discuss in further detail the impacts of climate change on coral reefs.

photo of Chip Fletcher by Dennis Oda from the Star Bulletin

One of the other articles Liz sent is about how the projected increase of one meter in sea level (by 2100) will affect Hawaii, specifically the Honolulu area. Chip Fletcher, a marine biologist for the University of Hawaii has done research on this topic and since I spent most of my time on Oahu in the Waikiki/Honolulu area I appreciated seeing these photos of him noting where this increase in sea level would reach in spots I had visited. I also found the maps showing the breadth of this change very compelling.

Representation of what parts of Waikiki will be submerged with a one meter rise in sea level. The hostel I stayed at is marked with a red dot.

I have marked the location of the youth hostel where I stayed with a red dot. Since most of the rooms were on the 3rd and 4th floors one could conceivably still stay there in 100 years but you would need a canoe to get there!

It was on the Big Island though when I started talking to locals about my project that the effects of climate change were made even more tangible. I first stayed in Hilo, on the eastern side of the Island. Even though this is known to be the rainy side of the Island, I learned that they had just come out of 55 straight days of rain.

Terry Rose, one of the owners of the charming Hilo Bay Hostel where I stayed was the first of several people to comment on this deluge. He had brought a bowl of juicy grapefruit from his backyard to share with the guests. He apologized for them not being as juicy or as large as usual but explained that the heavy and constant rains had overwhelmed his garden even though it had been constructed with swales by the previous owners (a botanist and a landscape designer) to accommodate for Hilo’s usual rainfall. I thought the grapefruits were delicious and of a typical size I was accustomed to back home in New York – but Terry kept insisting they were sub par. He mentioned too how those almost two solid months of rain, especially since they came over the Christmas holidays had dampened everyone’s spirits as well as their yards.


After I had visited the Mauna Lao Observatory I got a ride to the western side of the island with two new Brazilian friends, Igor and Samantha who were taking their rental car back to the airport. Once we crossed over the northern tip of the island I was astonished how the lushness and farms of the Hilo-area gave way to bone-dry grassy hills. While I was Hilo I saw a report in the newspaper about a wildfire that had just happened on the Kona-side.  I’d forgotten about it until driving down the main road to Kona I smelled the scent of the fire still lingering even before I noticed that the trees on the side of the road were scorched.

I stopped to take a look and some photos. Having photographed after the wildfires in Bastrop, Texas that destroyed over 1,500 homes, this fire had thankfully done little damage. Still, it was a sign of the drought this side of the island was experiencing.

At The Pineapple Park Hostel on the southern edge of Kona I met Mike Holliday, the son of one of the owners of the hostel. A self-described artist, pro-skater, and farmer, Mike was born in California but his family made the journey to Maui on a houseboat when he was thirteen. From a young age he said he has felt connected to the natural world. Now forty-five, Mike discussed how he sees climate change affecting Hawaii. “I just want things to be cool and green,” Mike mused. I presume he was referring to the actual physical conditions as well as the political/social climate. From a farmer’s standpoint he noted that increasing temperatures have also led to an increase in invasive species. “There’s a weird imbalance now that wasn’t here before,” he said referring to their being more snakes and less insects.

Mike asked me if I’d been to Mauna Kea. I mentioned I’d just been there a few days before. “Did you know that its name translates as “White Mountain?” he asked. I hadn’t really thought about it.But when I later found a postcard of it this volcano, the highest peak in Hawaii, fully covered with snow the name seemed justified. Mike said wistfully, “There used to be great snowboarding  and even skiing there, but in recent years there has been barely any snow.“

And that was exactly how I had found it in the midst of winter – just a few patches of snow on the shady-side of the mountain. I wonder if I return to Hawaii in five or ten years if there will be any snow there or if will need to be renamed Mauna Ele’ele, or Black Mountain, for its rocky volcanic surface and lack of snowy white blanket.


One thought on “Hawaii – A Tale in Two Parts

  1. Pingback: Rising Seas, Part 1: Tonga | The Witness Tree

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