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Climate Change Research At UH Hilo: Collecting Data On Forests And Trees
(l-r) UH Hilo graduate student Joanna Norton and Professor Becky Ostertag. Photo credit: Zoe Coffman.
Norton and Ostertag standing in front of foliage

From left, UH Hilo graduate student Joanna Norton and Professor Becky Ostertag. (Photo credit: Zoe Coffman)

Scientists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo are tackling climate change issues with numerous research projects focusing on a variety of target areas ranging from testable theories to the collection of data. In many of the projects UH Hilo faculty, graduate students and island resource managers are working together to conduct important collaborative research focused on building the community’s ability to adapt to future climate and land use changes.

Professor of Biology Becky Ostertag leads two such projects—a long-term forest research project with many partners across the Hawaiian islands, and a separate research study with graduate student Joanna Norton. Both projects link established and potential problems related to our forests to further help scientists and island resource managers understand the effects of climate change on the island’s environment.

Forest studies

Ostertag’s project, called the Hawaiʻi Permanent Plot Network or HIPPNET, is the deployment of permanent research sites across Hawaiʻi that track various factors in Hawaiian forests—the birth and death of trees, growth rates, species and so forth—all monitored with the data compiled together like an information packet. This comprehensive history helps to evaluate how Hawaiian species respond to climate fluctuations and allows researchers to make predictions about how Hawaiian forests will do with long term climate change. The collected field data relates to climate change by linking factors such as minimum and maximum temperatures, rainfall, solar radiation, soil moisture and wind speed.

The biggest issue that Hawaiian species will face is how quickly they will get water, especially in higher temperatures, Ostertag explains.

“Water is going to become an important issue with climate change,” she says.

Ostertag’s HIPPNET project has received funds by the National Science Foundation, USDA Forest Service, Institute of Pacific Island Forestry, University of California-Los Angeles, UH Mānoa, and the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center based at UH Hilo.

Albizia studies

Collection of albizia tree chips

Joanne Norton’s research project includes the collection of albizia trees, which are chipped, composted and then spread across agricultural lands ranging from Hilo to Kohala. Photo credit: J. Norton.

Norton’s research is part of the UH Hilo collaborations with the Pacific Islands Climate Science Center that link graduate students, agency and community natural resource managers and faculty to focus on today’s challenges related to climate change.

Norton’s project focuses primarily on alternative agricultural methods investigating the use of an invasive albizia tree species (Falcataria moluccana), found here on Hawaiʻi Island, as an alternative fertilizer.

Agriculture is one of the biggest influences in climate change—carbon dioxide and methane gas are contributors, however nitrous oxide is the biggest component.

“It is a much more powerful greenhouse gas and it’s coming out of agricultural fields which makes it reactive,” Norton explains.

Oftentimes agricultural gas emitted from the fertilizers is not mentally registered because it is considered routine and regular agriculture.

Norton’s research project includes the collection of albizia trees which are chipped, composted and then spread across agricultural lands ranging from Hilo to Kohala. After the composted albizia trees are dispersed across these agricultural plots, Norton will compare it to chemical fertilizers by analyzing differences in plant growth, soil and plant nutrient levels, and soil water holding capability.

For more about Ostertag and Norton’s research read the full article at UH Hilo Stories.

—A UH Hilo Stories article written by Anne Rivera, a public information intern in the Office of the Chancellor, and photos by Zoe Coffman

This is the second story in a series of articles on climate research at UH Hilo. Read the first story, Climate change research at UH Hilo: Tree rings and bird song.

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