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The Pacific Drought Knowledge Exchange, supported by the Pacific Islands CASC, connects island resource managers with localized climate data to create a regional drought community with strong relationships between scientists and managers.
Sierra McDaniel never ventures into the ‘Ōla‘a Forest in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park without a raincoat, rubber boots, and an all-weather notebook. As the park’s botanist, it is her job to get up close and personal with the teeming plant life that covers every inch of the Hawaiian rainforest, from the abundant ferns to Ke kino o Kanaloa, the rare jeweled orchid found only in Hawai‘i. In a forest where it rains almost every day, she has learned to live with being dripped on.
But 2010 was not a normal year. Only three inches of rain fell between late 2009 and late 2010, causing the rainforest to shrivel into something unrecognizable.
“[‘Ōla‘a] was… crispy,” says McDaniel. “The ferns were dead, it was dusty.”
“This really changed my perspective on what our [drought] strategy should be.”
Although postcards portray Hawai‘i as uniformly lush, droughts are a natural phenomenon on the islands. Trade winds blowing around volcanoes cause “rain shadow” effects that generate diverse mosaics of wet and dry ecosystems on each island, while El Niño and La Niña weather systems further alter large-scale rainfall patterns across the region.
“One thing that’s really unique on the islands is that there are a lot of micro-systems, [where] one side of an island is completely different than another just because of the way the weather is moving, and [where the] mountain ranges are,” says Heather Kerkering, Science Coordinator for the Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Science Center (PI CASC).
As climate change has intensified over the last half century, islands across the Pacific are encountering more frequent, more intense droughts where even characteristically wet ecosystems, like the ‘Ōla‘a Forest, are experiencing more extreme dry years. This has led to cascading consequences such as municipal water shortages, invasive species spread, and wildfires.
Hawaiian land and water managers rely on climate and weather data to prepare for and mitigate drought impacts. Unfortunately, many existing climate data are too coarse to be useful in Hawaiʻi and other Pacific Islands. While each island may contain dozens of distinct ecosystems with unique climate conditions, models often consider islands as a whole, calculating a single rainfall or temperature value for the entire area.
“A lot of the [climate and drought] products are at the island scale,” says McDaniel. “And so, you can look at those general trends, but really, we need tailored products that are at a relevant scale for management, both in terms of time and space.”
“The managers out here really need localized information to be able to make any management decisions,” agrees Kerkering. “[But] it’s not easy to forecast what the conditions might be like at these scales.”
Abby Frazier, Research Fellow at Hawaiʻi’s East-West Center, and Christian Giardina, Research Ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, recognized the need for better access to local drought climate information in the Pacific. They pitched an ambitious plan to the PI CASC: developing a community of practice on the islands where researchers and managers could share information on drought.
“We realized that we needed a much more formal way for researchers and managers to be communicating on drought,” says Frazier.
Their creation: the Pacific Drought Knowledge Exchange, a formal partnership between PI CASC-funded researchers and natural resource agencies in Hawaiʻi.
“We really wanted to demonstrate how we can provide easier access to drought climate information and data sources [in the Pacific],” says Frazier. “We wanted to provide better and more comprehensive information, improved technical assistance, and a more collaborative information transfer environment.”
The Drought Knowledge Exchange began with three pilot partners: Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, the Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a Forest Reserve, and the Mauna Kahālāwai Watershed Partnership. Each partner has unique challenges regarding droughts. For example, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park contains active volcanoes, which generate lava flows that can ignite dry forests. In contrast, managers in the Mauna Kahālāwai Watershed Partnership must consider the effects of droughts on both ecosystems and community water supplies.
Frazier knew from the beginning that any products they generate must be tailored to the specific managers who will use them. In Hawai‘i, each ecosystem, park, and watershed is too unique, its management challenges too specialized, for general information.
Ryan Longman, a Research Fellow at the East-West Center, created the data products for the Pacific Drought Knowledge Exchange. Longman worked closely with partner resource managers to identify useful drought metrics and to put them into formats accessible to scientific and public audiences.
“[Ryan’s] been doing this amazing job of handling this intense back and forth, really trying to understand what [the managers] do, what they’re thinking about, their concerns and needs, and then how we as researchers can provide them with better, [more] comprehensive information,” says Frazier.
Each partner favored different drought metrics. For example, McDaniel and her team at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park were particularly interested in consecutive dry days, or how long the park would go between rainstorms, because this value can translate into wildfire risks.
Longman summarized this drought and climate data into individualized Climate Change, Climate Variability, and Drought (CCVD) portfolios. Each portfolio contains about thirty pages of climate data specific to the partner’s land area, including average temperature and rainfall measures, historical records of droughts and fires, and future climate projections. Longman added specific metrics requested by each partner, like consecutive dry days for Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, to further customize the portfolios.
“That’s really one of the things the Drought Knowledge Exchange does well, it brings that tailored information to folks,” says Longman. “It really makes people feel they can address a problem because they have more tools at their disposal.”
McDaniel is thrilled about the climate portfolio for Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park and plans to integrate the data into the park’s management and communication strategies. Frazier and Longman also helped her translate the portfolio into a set of public-facing fact sheets that she intends to distribute to park staff.
“One [handout] is for our frontline staff who work at the Visitor Center and lead hikes, the ones that are communicating with the public,” McDaniel says. “These will be good products [in their] hands, whether they want to use them directly or pass [the information] on through different means – social media, print media, talks, anything like that.”
The success of these products, and of the Drought Knowledge Exchange as a whole, depends on the close working relationships Frazier, Longman, and Giardina have built with their partners.
In Hawai‘i, and throughout the Pacific, relationships matter.
“[On the islands], a lot of what you’re going to accomplish professionally depends more on your personal relationships than your professional expertise,” says Kerkering from the Pacific Islands CASC. “The Drought Knowledge Exchange has really modeled creating that relationship between the project leaders, the [researchers] developing the tools, and the managers. That’s really important to get right out here.”
“Relationships are where the magic happens,” McDaniel agrees.
A close rapport between partners and scientists is part of what characterizes science funded by the Pacific Islands CASC. Like other centers in the CASC network, the PI CASC prioritizes research with strong elements of co-production, where scientists work directly with end users to ensure the resulting products are useful and useable.
“The Drought Knowledge Exchange CCVD portfolios are good examples of [co-production] because they've been created in partnership with these managers and are created in a way that the manager is able to understand, access, and use them for their planning,” Kerkering says.
Co-production is particularly important for the PI CASC, whose consortium members and partners are located across the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands, including institutions in the state of Hawaiʻi , the Territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
“We are all connected by the ocean, not separated by it,” says Kerkering. “But we do face the unique challenge of working in a large geographical region consisting of many time zones, cultures, languages, and landscapes. There are a lot of variables that go into play on how we can best communicate across our region and what kind of resources [our partners] are able to access and implement.”
“Having something like the Drought Knowledge Exchange, where [partners] are already familiar with the [scientists], helps facilitate communication across the distance, in COVID more than ever.”
Moving forward, Frazier, Longman, and Giardina, along with collaborators Susan Cordell (U.S. Forest Service), Clay Trauernicht (University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa), Christine Fejeran (Guam Forestry) and Romina King (University of Guam), are looking to scale up the Drought Knowledge Exchange. A key task will be to see how data and information can be accessed and transferred to other stakeholders throughout the Pacific. The team is also developing a website to help connect resource managers in the region with different types of drought data and information.
The Drought Knowledge Exchange team is currently reaching out to new partners in Hawai‘i and across the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands, including federal, state, non-profit, and community-based organizations. For example, they are teaming with the Akaka Foundation for Tropical Forests to determine best practices for incorporating Indigenous Knowledge frameworks into the Drought Knowledge Exchange.
In preparation for Phase 2, Longman has continued to improve the CCVD portfolios and can now make them available to a wide range of stakeholders even outside the Drought Knowledge Exchange. In January 2021, he teamed with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southwest Climate Hub to deliver a course on climate adaptation planning for resource managers in the Pacific Islands. At the start of the course, he gave each participant a CCVD portfolio specific to their geographic area of interest.
“We streamlined the system [for making climate portfolios] and now it’s fully automated,” Longman says. “I’ve actually made over 70 [portfolios] so far. I can do this for, you know, anybody. I met somebody in the park the other day [who works in the conservation field] and I gave him one.”
Having similar sets of climate data is bringing together resource managers from across the Pacific Islands.
“Now we have common data that’s specific to our land areas,” says McDaniel. “It is actually creating a manager network so that we can talk amongst ourselves and maybe have more coordination.”
McDaniel intends to continue participating in the Pacific Drought Knowledge Exchange and the growing Pacific Islands drought community of practice. But she is thankful that she was able to help build the program in its pilot phase and that it has given her tools to apply to drought management in the park.
“It’s been a great experience. I’m really thankful that I’ve been able to be a part of it and really build these relationships.”
Learn more about the Pacific Drought Knowledge Exchange by visiting their website [*coming soon*] and through an informational webinar by McDaniel and Longman hosted by the Pacific Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change (Pacific RISCC) working group.
The Pacific Drought Knowledge Exchange (formally the Hawai‘i Drought Knowledge Exchange) is funded by the Pacific Island CASC projects “Working with Natural Resource Managers to Co-Produce Drought Analyses in Hawai‘i” and “Scaling up the Hawai‘i Drought Knowledge Exchange: Expanding Stakeholder Reach and Capacity to Address Climate Change, Variability, and Drought.”