Hawai’i is the inhabited place that is most distant from any other inhabited place in the world. Because of its isolation, Hawai’i is home to more endemic species than anywhere else on earth. Endemic means that a species is found just in that one area and nowhere else on earth. In such a remote location in the middle of the Pacific, one is tempted to think that climate change won’t affect the islands, but that is a mistake. There is a reason that climate change often appears with the adjective “global” in front of it.
The ecosystems and microclimates of Hawai’i are already complicated, due to topography. There are dry leeward sides and wet windward sides. The height of some of the volcanoes creates an alpine ecosystem. The peak of Kaua’i is the wettest place on earth, averaging over 450 inches of rain a year, yet other areas are deserts. There are tropical, temperate, and dryland forests.
Yet, even here, the climate is changing noticeably. The trade winds are what keeps Hawai’i from being as hot and humid as one would expect at this latitude, yet more and more often the trade winds stop blowing. This creates longer periods of hot, humid weather, even when it isn’t summer. Most of our time in Honolulu, there was a heat wave, despite it being early May. The trades dying down exacerbates vog, which is smog caused by volcanic ash. Given that Kilauea has been erupting continuously, the airborne ash can travel to other islands and create air quality problems for them. When the trade winds die down, the ash levels build up and people with breathing difficulties suffer.
The native Hawaiians named only two seasons, the rainy season and the hot season. In our current terms, the rainy season was late fall through early spring, but, as we see in other parts of the world, weather tends to be more extreme, so the wet season tends to be wetter and longer, with more possibilities of thunderstorms, which had been very rare. Meanwhile, the hot season is hotter and can get much more humid when the trade winds die down, which is happening much more frequently than in the past.
The increased dryness of the dry ecosystems makes them more vulnerable to drought. When we were on the leeward side of the Big Island, there were many signs warning of extreme fire danger. Wildfire is especially dangerous in Hawai’i because the plants evolved there without that threat, so they are not adapted to survive or re-populate after it. The problem is made worse by invasive species, such as fountain grass which grows on relatively fresh lava flows, making them useless as natural fire breaks. When we visited Ka’upulehu , Wilds was telling us about some of the problems that climate change is causing for them in their mission to restore a native dryland forest, one of which was the need to maintain fire breaks around the perimeter to protect the native plants.
The people of Hawai’i are working to reduce their carbon footprint to help fight climate change. There are many more electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles here, along with public charging stations. Rooftop solar photovoltaics and hot water are common. There is a light rail system being built in Honolulu to alleviate wasted time and fuel on the highway. There is some utilization of geothermal power, as well.
I have already been trying to do my part to combat climate change and this trip makes those efforts seem that much more important. I hope you will join me in work toward energy efficiency and renewable energy for the sake of extraordinarily beautiful Hawai’i and the rest of the world.