Jeff Burgett is the science coordinator of the Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative. At the Hilo meeting organized by Peter Vitousek of Stanford University to discuss research into Hawai`i ecosystems, Burgett spoke direly of changes to come.
“Conservation is founded on two concepts,” Burgett said: “protection of current habitat and restoration of lost species, processes, and cultural traditions whenever possible.”
“But,” he went on to add, “this assumes a stationary climate. And that’s no longer tenable.”
Climate change is coming, and many species may not be able to survive in the new circumstances. The changes include higher temperatures, especially at night and at higher elevations. Leeward and high-elevation areas will be drier, while windward slopes may be drier in parts and wetter in others. Contrasts in rainfall and temperatures will be accentuated, he said.
Shorelines will change as well. The lowest islands, in the northwestern part of the archipelago, “are going to be overwashed by storms long before they’re submerged” by rising seas, he said. Meanwhile, coastal wetlands will become saline or disappear.
Reef-building corals “will be in serious trouble quite soon,” he said. “Sea surface temperature increases will cause bleaching to be more frequent, and there’s the added stress of ocean acidification.”
Science and management need to be linked more strongly than ever to confront the changes, Burgett said. To encourage this, his agency is developing four new “products,” he said.
First is an analysis of the vulnerability of plant and bird species to the changing climate, he said. “The plant version looks at the climate vulnerability of the entire native flora … and includes species distribution models for more than 1,000 species.” That analysis, he added, should be available for use as early as this fall.
A similar analysis for all native forest birds is expected to be released in early 2014, Burgett said.
A tool to look at coral reef stresses, including bleaching and aragonite saturation projections, is to be released this fall, he said.
Finally, PICCC will look at coastal wetland transformations on three high-priority wetlands on O`ahu and Maui, including Maui’s Kealia Pond.
“There’s going to be a transformation of a lot of critical conservation properties and associated resources,” Burgett said. He noted that among the several future climate scenarios, “we are currently on track with the high warming scenario. By the mid-century, there will be a decrease in winter rainfall of substantial magnitude – 50 plus percent.”
“Hawai`i is becoming a different place than it’s ever been – very quickly,” he said.