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In the wake of the devastating Lahaina wildfire in August 2023, researchers from different fields at the University of Hawaiʻi are embarking on two public impact research projects focused on transforming how we monitor and respond to disasters in the agricultural sector, and analyzing the possible effects of chromium on Lahaina agricultural lands. The projects earned a combined more than $519,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Safeguarding Hawaiʻi’s agriculture

colors on a map on the island of Maui
Dramatic changes in agricultural land use on Maui between 2014 (left) and 2019 (right) are reflected in a shift away from sugarcane (green).

Dubbed AgriWatch, this project, funded by a $268,472 grant, aims to bring real-time monitoring and accurate assessments to the forefront of disaster management.

“The unprecedented destruction, loss of life and extensive damage to Maui’s agricultural areas revealed a critical need for real-time monitoring and accurate disaster impact assessments,” said Qi Chen, project director and geography professor in the College of Social Sciences at UH Mānoa. “The goal of AgriWatch is to understand vulnerabilities, mitigate risks and foster resilient agriculture practices by developing rapid response and impact monitoring and assessment capabilities for disasters related to fire and agriculture in Hawaiʻi.”

The research team will leverage cutting-edge technologies, including AI, satellite remote sensing, cloud computing and web applications. They plan to create high-resolution crop data layers for 2023 and 2024, using proven deep learning methods. These methods, previously successful in California and Texas, will be adapted for the unique needs of Hawaiʻi. The team will also assemble high-resolution fire and vegetation condition maps, and will create an online disaster monitoring and impact assessment platform that enables near real-time disaster monitoring and impact assessment.

Collaborations are planned with farmer-supporting organizations statewide to provide outreach and training in the use of the data and tools. Organizations include Hawaiʻi Farmers’ Union United, Hawaiʻi Farm Bureau, the Hawaiʻi Food Hub Hui and the UH Cooperative Extension Services. High school and undergraduate students, including from the Hawaiʻi State 4-H program, will also be invited to participate in research activities.

AgriWatch will fill knowledge and data gaps in crop types, provide open data access and online tools for near real-time disaster monitoring and assessment, restore food production and mitigate disaster risks. Current plans are to have the project developed and ready to use by November 2024.

“AgriWatch will improve understanding of vulnerabilities, develop resilient agricultural practices, and empower farmers and decision makers for rapid responses to future disasters,” said Zhe Li, project co-director and geographer with the USDA. “By integrating state-of-the-art technologies, collaboration and education, the initiative aims not only to address the aftermath of the Maui fire disaster, but to also build a foundation for a more resilient and adaptive agricultural landscape.”

In addition to Chen and Li, members of the research team include: Noa Lincoln, project co-director and associate researcher in the Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences in UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources; Zhengwei Yang, project co-director and geographer with USDA; Haonan Chen, project co-director and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Colorado State University; and Changyong Cao, project collaborator and chief of NOAA’s Satellite Calibration and Data Assimilation Branch in Satellite Meteorology and Climatology Division.

Investigating possible dangers of chromium

Volcanic Hawaiʻi soils contain large amounts of chromium. Chromium itself isn’t toxic, however, when heated, chromium can become highly toxic and easily spread. The toxic chromium can affect public health in agricultural communities through multiple exposure routes, including direct skin contact, dust inhalation and drinking water consumption.

This project, funded by a $250,942 grant and led by UH Mānoa College of Engineering and Water Resources Research Center Professor Tao Yan, will investigate the abundance of the toxic chromium in the Maui wildfire-impacted soil, and develop cost effective and practical bioremediation strategies.

Yan and his research team will determine the impact of the wildfires on the toxic chromium levels in agricultural and forest soils through field sampling and laboratory experiments. The team will also conduct laboratory experiments to test mulching and acidic compost amendments as cost-effective and practical bioremediation strategies to reduce the toxic soil.

“The anticipated impact is not limited to the improved understanding of the wildfires’ impact on the toxic chromium soil and the development of bioremediation strategies, but also to educate and communicate the associated public health risks to the impacted communities,” Yan said.

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