Sharing science and perspectives at Science Summit to strengthen PI-AK connections

a group of people walk through a field beneath a mountain

Amidst the short, cold days of early January in Alaska, the balmy coastline of O‘ahu seems an unlikely place to find research connections. But this month, a group of Alaska CASC researchers gathered at the PI-CASC 2023 Hawaiʻi Climate Adaptation Science Summit to learn and share their research as part of the Pacific Islands-Alaska CASC, or PI-AK, Collaboration which brings researchers and graduate students together across the Pacific to share knowledge and compare research approaches in climate adaptation. 

Though distant and distinct from each other in many ways, both regions face significant alterations to watershed ecosystems and environmental processes due to climate change and similar barriers to adaptation, such as sparse monitoring networks and challenging study environments. The Summit provided further opportunities for scientists from each region to find areas of common research and future knowledge sharing. 

During the first session of the event, wildfire researchers and managers spoke of the growing challenge of battling fire-prone invasive grasses and protecting native forests. When Ryan Peralta, with the Hawaiʻi Division of Forestry and Wildlife, fielded a question on the possibility of fire in the high-altitude rainforest regions of Hawaiʻi, his answer piqued the interest of many of the Southeast Alaskans in the room: “It’s already happening.”  

“I had no idea it was such a pervasive and complex problem there,” said Alaska CASC researcher Allison Bidlack.

“We’re lucky that we don’t yet have much of a fire problem in Southeast Alaska, but there is little doubt that fire will be an issue in the future with our changing weather patterns and insect outbreaks. It’s a growing issue to the south of us in British Columbia where they are seeing unprecedented fire seasons.” In Interior Alaska, where wildfire is frequent and increasing, there is an opportunity to learn from regional approaches to climate modeling and fire weather forecasting tools.

Shared insights and relationship building are some of the driving goals behind these place-based visits through the PI-AK Collaboration. Following a research visit last month, Alaska CASC scientists were able to return and present alongside their PI-CASC collaborators at the Summit for a session on integrated watershed science. They shared outcomes from several joint research initiatives funded as pilot projects through the Collaboration, including developing high-resolution climate models and understanding changes to streamflow in Alaska and Hawaiʻi. 

The summit concluded with a final session on sea-level rise adaptation science, featuring tools and adaptation approaches with relevance for many coastal Alaskan communities.

While in Hawaiʻi, the visiting researchers were also able to experience climate adaptation work first-hand, including a ridge-to-reef watershed tour led by local experts that highlighted environmental challenges, community solutions, and research activities supported by PI-CASC. Invasive plants and animals are a pervasive problem across the Hawaiian Islands, out-competing native species and causing habitat loss, erosion, and increased wildfire risk. 

Community-led efforts by nonprofits such as Papahana Kualoa, Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi, and Paepae o Heʻeia alongside the federal Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve, are working to restore native flora and fauna along with traditional agriculture and mariculture practices. PI-CASC-supported researchers and students are studying the impacts of these efforts and the downstream effects throughout the ecosystem.

“There are such strong similarities to some of the work being conducted in Southeast Alaska by nonprofits, villages, and the Prince of Wales Tribal Conservation District around community forestry and food security,” said Bidlack.

Identifying potential collaborators and partners in this cross-regional effort, as well as discussing future areas of research and information sharing, were highlights of the visit. PI-CASC Acting Federal Deputy Director/Science Coordinator Heather Kerkering was encouraged to see the energy and commitment demonstrated by the principal investigators that gathered in Honolulu.

“One of the things we stand to gain from each other is learning what can help us be most resilient to climate change. We’re really data-scarce here in the Pacific Islands, and so is Alaska. Identifying what information we need and how to create an adaptation response that can be applied across a big region is crucial, because in both Alaska and the Pacific Islands, there are tons of coastline and watershed space being impacted by climate change,” said Kerkering.

“Having a group of people interested in studying that, learning from it, and sharing adaptation responses is key,” said Kerkering.

As two regions at the forefront of climate change, with strongly held indigenous and cultural relationships to the land and seascapes, the Pacific Islands and Alaska have a unique opportunity to strengthen adaptation efforts through collaboration in science and community outreach.

PI-AK Participants in the PI-CASC 2023 Hawaiʻi Climate Adaptation Science Summit.