Distant lands intertwine: PI-CASC hosts Alaska CASC scientists in Hawaiʻi

A group of people standing outdoors in rocky terrain, looking towards grasslands
PI-AK researchers participated in a site visit in Hawai’i in November 2022.

From icy fields to humid jungles, partner researchers from Hawaiʻi and Alaska have had a pair of opportunities this year to visit each other’s work spaces and get an up-close look at the parallels their regions had in science, community, and natural resources.

The Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Science Center, in coordination with the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo’s Marine Science Department, hosted a site visit in November with a delegation of researchers from Alaska as part of PI-CASC’s ongoing collaborative projects with the Alaska CASC, also called PI-AK. This was a follow-up trip to PI-CASC researchers visiting their Alaska counterparts in Juneau in July.

While in Hawaiʻi, researchers from Alaska observed how their Hawaiian counterpart systems are similar and different regarding their structure, function, and current and future impacts of climate and land-use change. Field trips led by local experts over a span of three days gave participants a ridge-to-reef experience — watershed systems, stream habitats, and shoreline resources — all while providing opportunities to exchange methodologies and parallels in their research.

The group visited the headwaters of the Wailuku River, the largest river in Hawaiʻi, where Mauna Kea Watershed Alliance Coordinator Cheyenne Hiapo Perry spoke about the surrounding ecology and the Native Hawaiians’ history and connections to the region. They also toured along the Keaukaha shoreline to see groundwater-fed fishponds and anchialine pools while discussing perspectives on food security between Hawaiʻi and Alaska. The Honoliʻi Stream was another highlight of their tour, led by Crispin Nakoa, a recent graduate of UH Hilo’s Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) program. Hawaiʻi Sea Grant Graduate Fellow, and current Arizona State University Ph.D student.

Sharing knowledge


A group of people are engaging in discussion in a coastal setting
Researchers from Alaska and Hawaiʻi explored Hawaiian watersheds, from ridge to reef.

Claire Delbecq, an Alaska CASC graduate fellow at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said the visit helped her a see a unique perspective in the challenges natural resource managers in Hawaiʻi faced, while also taking note of similar issues in Alaska.

“It was really striking to see how many different ecosystems are present in the watershed. It was also wild to learn about how they are working to deal with invasive species, as well as land-use demands, in different parts of the watershed. We also got some perspective on food security in Hawaiʻi and how people are trying to cultivate food more locally rather than relying on food shipments from the mainland, which felt similar to conversations in Juneau.”

Delbecq is studying how streams transport carbon and nutrients to the ocean to assess salmon growth rates, and the Hawaiʻi visit allowed her to connect with PI-CASC fellow Walter Boger, a UH Hilo TCBES graduate student, who is looking at shifts in carbon exports in a Hawaiian watershed under a changing climate. In their exchanges, Delbecq and Boger shared and compared their research methods for making carbon assessments and predictions.

“In both Alaska and Hawaiʻi, the public’s love for the land and rivers is evident. Even though the environment and people are different, there is an appreciation for nature that is held,” Boger said. “In a more scientific frame, both environments are highly dependent on ridge-to-reef connections. A ridge-to-reef framework is needed to advise public policy in the future.”

The ‘in-person’ experience

Tracy Wiegner and Steven Colbert, PI-AK researchers and marine science professors at UH Hilo, spoke on the importance of these collaborative site visits and how they provide a fresh perspective on the similarities and differences the two regions have, in terms of natural resources and research methods. Having also attended the Juneau site visit over the summer, the two have a more well-rounded understanding of the collaborative projects.

Five men leaning on a side wall and looking at a waterfall

“This was truly an opportunity to collaborate better and bring different life skills together,” Colbert said. “Part of this visit was sharing project methods for collecting samples and processing data, and having that opportunity to actually see the systems in person is an experience you just can’t replicate over email or video call. While seeing the watershed, we were starting to think about future projects as we started talking about what systems among our region are impacted by climate change. We also assessed what background information is available and can be shared with each other.”

Wiegner is studying hydrologic conditions in Hawaiʻi and how land-use practices are changing stream discharge and nearshore marine health; she noted how the local community interactions with natural resources in Hawaiʻi and Alaska were different, but equal.

“The appreciation for the land and its resources in both spaces were very visible, and in different ways. Local experts here deal heavily with invasive species, where in Alaska they don’t have that same threat level. Here, we’re working to restore native forests and bring more water into the system while in Alaska, they work within a protected forest and preserve food sources, especially in their river systems. And yet, even with these differences, the local communities in both these regions are equally engaged in preserving natural resources,” Wiegner said.

What PI-AK demonstrates

The success of the site visits is a testament to how cross-regional partnerships help bolster research through collaboration. These place-based visits served as a catalyst for researchers from both regions to further understand not just the science, but the culture and community that the science is founded upon. PI-CASC Federal Director Mari-Vaughn Johnson said the in-person experiences add more personal context to the commonalities between Hawaiʻi and Alaska, including commonalities in indigenous and cultural relationships with land and seascapes.

“It is one thing to conceptualize these similarities in a Zoom meeting and research proposal. It is quite another thing for researchers to visit the lands in which they do not work and live to discover just how deep the similarities run. Being together in person of course builds stronger relationships with each other, but it also opens new relationships and concepts that expand our own identities and enrich the possibilities of what we can do together. The more we realize what we have in common — how our lessons can be shared, and the ways in which we can meet challenges together — the better the future of climate adaptation looks,” she said.

The PI-AK collaboration currently has seven pilot projects funded by both CASCs to assist community-based adaptation in their respective regions by building capacity, developing science, and informing natural resource management on best practices to adapt to climate change. Johnson said that she looks forward to seeing this collaboration advance.

“The lesson is in patience and persistence with how long and how much work it takes to build strong relationships wherein members are willing to listen to each other and take risks with each other and explore unconventional ideas. PI-AK has been around for 3 or 4 years now, but it is still in its infancy. I look forward to seeing how it will grow,” Johnson said.