A Sense of Place

“Rooting the process of adaptation in communities allows important communal practices… to be identified and used to facilitate change from within, rather than attempting to force change from without” (Ensor and Berger 2009: 231).

The MCC’s Relational* Approach to Engaging Place, Multiple Knowledge Forms, and Collaborative Research through the Practitioner’s Lens

figure demonstrating a research process founded in place through manager's experience that subsequently guides an applied research pathway.

*for further context on “relationality” see Tynan 2021 in the References section at the bottom of the page.

The Socio-Ecological Setting of Hawai’i Island

Maunakea from Hilo Bay with layer of cloud in the middle showing the peak popping through the cloud layer at sunset.
Sunset at Waiʻuli. Photo Credit: Scott Laursen

From mauka to makai (mountain summit to the sea) Hawaiʻi Island features diverse climates that drive an equally rare diversity of ecosystems. It is, therefore, host to many complex shifts resulting from climate change. Yet after centuries of socio-ecological change, this island has remained resilient due to human adaptation and cultural innovation. This makes Hawaiʻi Island a revealing place to build upon our understanding of contemporary climate shifts while strengthening long standing adaptive capacities to change.

Hawaiʻi Island encompasses 4,024 square miles in the Central Pacific and rises from sea level to nearly 14,000 ft in elevation with five volcanic mountains (see map below). Tradewinds generate rainfall and clouds amid the mountainous topography while

Fishpond with lava rock in forefront and coastal forest in background.
Honuʻapo, Kaʻū. Loko iʻa (traditional Hawaiian fishponds) have been essentiall for Hawaiian cultural perpetuation and community sustenance for centuries. To adapt to climate change, loko iʻa managers seek to understand future changes in ground water flow, nutrient delivery, and salinity. Photo credit: Ryan McClymont, USGS

interacting with a temperature inversion layer, creating unique climatic contrast and diversity over short distances and collectively forming an island resembling a continent in miniature (Juvik and Juvik 1998).

The island contains a wide-array of landscapes from barren new lava fields to lush wet forests and alpine tundra. Isolation and unique habitat diversity in close proximity fostered the evolution of the island’s remarkable biodiversity. This globally unique setting is, however, at risk to a wide array of climate change impacts.

Mirroring the ecological diversity, human communities on this rural island are highly place-based, experiencing a wide range of ecosystems and climates, embodying distinct histories of Native Hawaiian and immigrant cultures and home to a diversity of landowners and political arenas (McMillen et al. 2017). Prior to contemporary resource management systems, Native Hawaiians maintained an abundance of biological and cultural resources through the Moku System, which required a deep understanding of the structure and function of the land and seascapes. The Moku System created a mosaic  of socio-ecological systems by dividing the islands vertically to address resource management needs and horizontally to manage human population dynamics (Winter et al. 2018). This socio-ecological assemblage (human and “more-than-human” communities) elevates the island as a representative site for other locations globally that are working to be resilient and adaptive under a changing climate (Abram 1996).

Dive Deeper: Climate in the Pacific

Map of Hawaiʻi Island with parcels of land use types.
County of Hawaiʻi General Plan Land Use Pattern Allocation Guide (current as of 2012) with centroids of land managed by interviewees, site (squares) and watershed (circles) scales, by manager type on Hawaiʻi Island, Hawaiʻi. Inset showing area (63% of island acreage) managed by interviewed site- and watershed-scale managers. (Laursen et al. 2018)

Abram D (1996) The spell of the sensuous: language and perception in a more than human world. Random House, Toronto

Ensor J, Berger R (2009) Community-based adaptation and culture in theory and practice. In: Adger WN, Lorenzoni I, O’Brien KL (eds) Adapting to climate change: thresholds, values and governance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 227-239

Juvik, S. and J. Juvik. (1998) Atlas of Hawaiʻi. University of Hawaiʻi Press, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi

Laursen S, Puniwai N, Genz AS, Nash SAB, Canale LK, and Ziegler-Chong S (2018) Collaboration across worldviews: managers and scientists on Hawaiʻi Island utilize knowledge coproduction to facilitate climate change adaptation. Environmental Management 62(4): 619-630

McMillen H, Ticktin T, Springer HK (2017) The future is behind us: traditional ecological knowledge and resilience over time on Hawai ‘i Island. Regional Environmental Change 17(2): 579-592. DOI 10.1007/s10113-016-1032-1

Tynan L (2021) What is relationality? Indigenous knowledges, practices and responsibilities with kin. Cultural Geographies. 28(4):597-610. doi:10.1177/14744740211029287

Winter, KB, K Beamer, MB Vaughan, AM Friedlander, MH Kido, AN Whitehead, MKH Akutagawa, N Kurashima, MP Lucas, and B Nyberg (2018) “The Moku System: Managing Biocultural Resources for Abundance within Social-Ecological Regions in Hawaiʻi” Sustainability 10, no. 10: 3554. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10103554




Scott Laursen
Climate Change Adaptation Extension Specialist