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As climate change takes shape, fears over its threat to cultural resources grow

(Image: Hawaii News Now) (Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now) (Image: Hawaii News Now)
KANEOHE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

For 16 years, volunteers and community leaders have worked to restore He'eia Fishpond, an 800-year-old marvel of sustainable aquaculture. 

They’ve painstakingly secured a 1.3-mile-long rock wall that encompasses 88 acres of ocean water – and built a robust educational component around the ancient site to help the community understand its cultural significance. 

Now the fishpond’s modern caretakers are facing a new battle – against rising sea levels. 

“What we’re starting to see is that our high tides are a lot higher than we’ve seen in the past,” Paepae O He’eia Executive Director Hi’ilei Kawelo said. 

“It’s sort of like a slap in the face like, ‘You better wake up, you better start adjusting your ways, you better start raising the height of your wall,’ so that in the next 50 years or so, the wall will still be standing.” 

That “slap in the face” is happening more frequently these days as everyone from scientists to cultural practitioners to business owners begin to understand the massive scope – and threat – of climate change to Hawaii. 

And for those fearing the loss of cultural resources, the sting is perhaps even worse.

"The cultural ramifications of climate change are huge," said Sam 'Ohu Gon, senior scientist and cultural adviser at the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. "When the thing that a place is famous for ... that are celebrated in chant and hula can no longer support those things again, that would be a terrible blow."

Added “Uncle Kimo” Keaulana, kumu hula and Honolulu Community College assistant professor of Hawaiian Studies: “It just makes me feel awful and it makes me feel helpless."

“I think those who are in power are not looking at people like us, indigenous peoples, who actually need our fishponds. We need our lo’i kalo.”

Climate change puts at risk critical infrastructure in Hawaii, tens of thousands of shoreline homes and properties, a host of native species, and nothing less than Hawaii’s economic engine, tourism. 

But also in peril: A host of Native Hawaiian cultural resources – artifacts and culturally-significant spaces that might not carry a price tag (like the disappearance of Waikiki beach does) but that are undoubtedly priceless. 

In fact, the first guiding principle for considering Native Hawaiian resources in the management of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is this: “All natural resources are cultural resources.” 

“Like other indigenous and Pacific cultures, Native Hawaiians understand they are interconnected with their environment. As such, the plants, animals, and islands of Papahanaumokuakea are part of Native Hawaiians themselves, and impacts to these resources simultaneously impact them,” an expansive 2016 NOAA assessing “climate change vulnerability” to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands concluded. 

The same holds true in the main Hawaiian islands, where climate change isn’t just threatening shoreline spaces, but forests and mountains – and all of the flora and fauna that live there. 

‘We’re seeing strange things’ 

For the last several years, Mauna Kea has been at the center of a contentious debate over its management, and whether building another large telescope on the mountain’s top amounts to desecration. 

Many Native Hawaiians consider Mauna Kea sacred, the home of the snow goddess Poliahu. But warmer temperatures could forever alter Poliahu’s home. 

A group of climate modelers from the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii developed a model that found that both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are typically covered with snow at least 20 days each winter, on average. But that could soon change. 

“If our predictions are right, snow almost entirely disappears by 2100,” said Kevin Hamilton, University of Hawaii atmospheric science researcher and former director of the International Pacific Research Center.

Native Hawaiians believe Mauna Kea is one of the most sacred places in Hawaii. If snow were to disappear, it would be a devastating loss to Hawaiian culture. 

“From a general point of view, it’s just very, very sad to imagine the snow just disappearing,” Hamilton said. 

At lower elevations on Hawaii Island and across the state, native plants and animals are also fighting for survival. Over the coming decades, scores of native plants and animals are at risk of being wiped out. 

“When plants die, a part of us dies,” Keaulana said. “Plants affect every single part of the Hawaiian culture.”

From honoring gods to potential healing remedies, native plants hold an important role in island lifestyle.

“We potentially have plants that hold cures – something that will heal some aspects of humanity. And we’re going to be losing those chances if those plants disappear totally from the planet,” Keaulana said.

Officials with the state Department of Land and Natural resources are keeping a close eye on the health of Hawaii’s diverse ecological system. 

“It’s hard to avoid the fact that we’re seeing strange things,” said DLNR Forestry and Wildlife Division administrator David Smith. “We’re seeing more intense fires, the biggest storm ever, the biggest flood ever, and it’s just one after another.” 


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Mosquitoes are topping the list of concerns for the DLNR because the diseases they can transmit pose a major threat to Native Hawaiian forest birds, Smith said. 

“Right now, the mosquito line is held down by temperature,” Smith said. “If there’s any warming and that line goes up the mountain, then the mosquitos are going to go up the mountain and be able to invade more territory for our native forest birds.” 

Smith said right now, elevations of upwards of 4,000 feet are mosquito free because of the cool temperatures higher up. 

But that appears to be changing rapidly. 

Native forest birds, like the honeycreeper, are already in peril. Many species are trending towards extinction because native birds typically live in higher elevations. As warmer temperatures creep to higher elevations, native birds are exposed to environments where disease-carrying mosquitos thrive.

“It’s already trending,” Smith said. “It’s hard to avoid coming to a conclusion that something’s going on.” 

University of Hawaii ethnobotanist Al Chock said losing native species wouldn’t just be an environmental loss, it would be devastating for the Hawaiian community. 

“Plants are an integral part of the culture,” Chock said. 

They’re part of the food supply, used in lei and native implements. But they can also embody gods and be held sacred.

The ohia lehua, for example, is currently at threat as thousands of acres have been lost to a fungus known as Rapid Ohia Death. The ohia lehua’s blossom is said to embody the fire goddess, Pele. 

If a warmer climate led to the die off of those plants, Chock said, “it would be a devastating effect because you don’t have these symbols anymore.” 

Indeed, climate change is already killing off the already rare silversword – the iconic plant characterized by its silvery, spiky leaves and seen atop Haleakala and Mauna Kea. 

“There’s a very interesting phenomenon -- very sad -- and it's probably a more general phenomenon which is, of course, Hawaii is the world's hotspot for species extinction,” said Hamilton, of the University of Hawaii.

There's been other losses already, too: Petroglyphs that are no longer visible under the waves, and the famous salt ponds of Kauai, which are now inundated, Gon said. 

‘We’re nowhere near done’

Despite the rapid pace of climate change, officials say they are working to combat it – through community outreach and education to reduce carbon footprints. There are also adaptation efforts afoot — work to move some species to higher ground so they have a better chance of survival, for example.

“We’re trying to look ahead and plan, but we’re not really sure exactly what’s going to happen and when,” Smith said. “So we’re just trying to set ourselves up so that we can adapt to whatever changes we’re seeing."

The EPA estimates that the average U.S. temperature will rise by about 3 to 12 degrees by 2100 as a result of climate change. And models put sea level rise on Oahu at upwards of 4 feet.

From the mountains to the sea, climate change threatens the very foundations of Hawaiian culture. And there are many people working to preserve the environment – and its cultural connections.

To prevent the loss of He’eia fishpond, volunteers have been working to revitalize the site since 2001.

At one point, Kawelo says, about 400 fishponds dotted Hawaii’s coastlines. Today, only 50 remain. 

“Fishponds are capable of feeding thousands of people. We lose a fishpond, we lose the capability of feeding thousands of people,” Keaulana said.

To fight the rising oceans, volunteers have added rocks to increase the height of the fishpond’s border. But still, that may not be enough. 

During a recent round of king tides in May, water flowed over the wall, providing a grim reality for the future of coastal cultural sites. 

“It took so many centuries to keep those fishponds going,” Keaulana said. “We’re going to lose a food source.”

Paepae O He’eia leaders, the group responsible for preserving the pond into the future, say they’ve kept sea level rise and climate change in the back of their minds for years, but are only now seeing the effects first hand. 

“We understand the implications of climate change. We’ve known that climate change is imminent and upon us,” Kawelo said. “We’ve been at it for 17 years and we’re still going and we’re not done. We’re nowhere near done.”

Gon added that the Hawaiian culture is resilient — able to weave in new elements, while working to preserve the past.

"Hawaiian culture," he said, "has always been an adaptable culture."


This is part of an ongoing Hawaii News Now digital series exploring climate change and its impacts in Hawaii.
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