Researchers on the island are still worried about the personal repercussions for their colleagues and families after a series of severe wildfires this week ravaged Maui's arid forests and the ancient city of Lahaina, killing more than 50 people. A facility where a rare plant is grown has been damaged and studies on whales may be affected. Some people are in shock because their projects have been interrupted. According to marine mammal ecologist Marc Lammers, "we're still trying to understand what this really means because most of us are still in shock right now." Naturally, we also think about our colleagues.
Scott Fisher, a restoration ecologist at Hawaii Land Trust, said the fires, which have been going on since Tuesday night, began when a complex set of conditions came together to create a flash point. He states that Maui has been experiencing a severe drought for several years. The situation was exacerbated this week by Fisher's "extraordinary" winds assisted by Hurricane Dora, which crossed the southwest of the Hawaiian archipelago, the abundance of combustible invasive plants, and fires that started on the west side of the island, where forests are drier than elsewhere. It was “the perfect recipe for disaster,” according to ecologist Carla D'Antonio of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The close-knit scientific community in Maui is trying to circumvent road closures and power outages caused by fires to control research facilities and field stations, although deaths and other personal losses—many people have lost their homes—are at the forefront. Even those whose work has managed to stay clear of the fire line are alarmed. "I don't even know what we should be worried about in the first place," said Andrea Kealoha, director of a water quality lab in Maui. “It has never been this bad before.”
Kealoha claims that although wildfires have become more common in Hawaii in recent years, they used to only occur in more isolated areas away from residential areas. Kealoha, a lifelong Maui native, was shocked by the unprecedented complete destruction of the city of Lahaina.
Rich in history Formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Lahaina was an important cultural center on the island of Maui. It was also "the center of whaling science in Hawaii" until this week, according to Lammers, who works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. With a fuel pier and primary ferry service between Maui and the neighboring island of Lanai, the city's port has long provided important logistical support for marine science operations on Maui. The port is now bare and covered with burnt rubbish.
Lammers' NOAA research vessel was not in port when the fire broke out. Others weren't so lucky. One of the losers, marine biologist and Ultimate Whale Watch & Snorkel owner Lee James, is a NOAA partner who routinely assists in rescuing whales from fishing nets and is known for lending free boats to nearby research teams, Lammers claims. According to Lammers, boats are “no more”. They were destroyed.
Oceanologist Kealoha is unable to go outside to assess the initial effects of the fires on Maui's sea and groundwater due to dangerous conditions on the island's north side. “I feel helpless,” she explains. I try to stay off the roads because I'm locked up on the opposite side of the island, where the great destruction has taken place. despite our desire, we do not have access to water to determine the effects.
Kealoha seeks rapid response grants from organizations such as the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate possible changes in water quality off the coast of Maui, where several coral reefs are currently developing.
In the wake of wildfires, soil erosion can release material into the island's streams and eventually into the ocean, resulting in a murky mess that can significantly disrupt aquatic ecosystems. According to him, sedimentation is a phenomenon that “can shift an entire ecosystem from corals to one dominated by algae”.
Some scientists have even discovered that the events of the past week have damaged their work on land. According to biologist Arthur Medeiros of the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project, the Olinda Rare Plant at the University of Hawaii was unaffected by the adjacent fires, but high winds destroyed some of the facility's buildings and grow homes. Medeiros lamented the severe damage done to "an extraordinary collection of endangered native plants."
Other conservation initiatives on Maui, such as those led by the Maui Invasive Species Committee, the Mauna Kahlwai Watershed Partnership, and the Maui Nui SeaBird recovery project, have been blocked to "varying degrees", according to conservation scientist Shaya Honarvar of the University of Hawaii. “This tragedy still affects our staff on Maui,”
Changing ecosystems in Hawaii are increasing the islands' susceptibility to flames, according to Dan Rubinoff, an invasive species biologist at UH. We experience prolonged dry periods, especially in the arid areas of the island, and this is definitely due to climate change. But inequalities in habitat and land use make the situation worse, he adds.
Two centuries ago, when Europe first colonized Hawaii, invasive species entered the country faster than ever before. Many of the invasive species such as fountaingrass (Pennisetum setaceum) and Haole koa (Leucaena leucocephala) are fire-adapted. They grow fast, provide fuel when fires start, and quickly resettle after a wildfire, replacing native species.
According to D'Antonio, a significant portion of the islands in particular are dominated by different African pasture grasses, and their death by drought has produced large quantities of flammable fuel that can support strong flames. This kind of disaster has been long anticipated, he continues.
Researchers claim that the fact that thousands of wild goats and other non-native hoofed animals (such as deer, pigs and sheep) roam freely in the island's forests is one of the reasons these weeds have found a spread. According to Rubinoff, they "hammer native plants", "peel off bark from trees," and "can spread plant diseases."
Eliminating invasive species, or at least limiting their prevalence, is only part of the solution, Medeiros said. Medeiros also recommends restoring native forest areas and adding additional low-flammability vegetation to the Maui landscape. According to him, there is no magic solution.
Hawaii's governor has described the recent fires as the worst in the state's history, so recovery for Maui and Lahaina will not be easy. Kealoha realizes that rebuilding will take some time, but is still optimistic about the ability of Maui's research community to recover and even become stronger. As a result of the incident, he already says, “We are working with more groups, establishing collaborations and relationships with people who have dealt with this type of disaster before.”
Source: 'Still in shock.' Amid wildfire tragedy, Maui scientists assess their research losses | Science | AAAS
📩 14/08/2023 16:18