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National Climate Report Lands As Hawaii Grapples With Wildfire Threat

The Biden administration will release on Tuesday the fifth National Climate Assessment, a major update on how climate change is affecting the U.S.

In Hawaii, the report comes at a time when the threat of wildfires continues to weigh heavily on many residents.

“We don’t need this report to tell people that wildfires are a really big problem for Hawaii” after the Aug. 8 blaze that devastated Lahaina, said Abby Frazier, lead author of the update’s chapter on Hawaii and U.S.-affiliated Pacific islands.

However, Frazier said the chapter will better illustrate why the fires have become such a big problem in the Pacific, where they’ve increased fourfold in the region in recent decades. That’s partially due to climate change, as well as the proliferation of invasive, dry vegetation such as guinea grass, researchers say.

Damaged section of road on Kamehameha Highway in Kaaawa. Climate change.
Parts of Kamehameha Highway on Windward Oahu are more frequently crumbling in the ocean in recent years. The latest National Climate Assessment examines the latest challenges facing Hawaii and the greater Pacific, as well as ways to address those growing problems. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

In Hawaii, fires now burn roughly the same percentage of land annually as they do across the Western U.S., at roughly 1%, according to Frazier and Clay Trauernicht, a University of Hawaii wildlands fire researcher.

In other U.S.-affiliated islands, such as the territory of Guam, that percentage of total land burned by fires is far greater – closer to 4% annually, they said. As a comparison, 4% represents one of the worst fire years ever recorded in California, Trauernicht said. 

The reason Guam sees such extensive area burned by fire is because almost a quarter of its land area has been turned into savannah due to human activity, he added.

The wildfire threat is just one of the topics covered in the Pacific chapter, alongside other worsening problems such as severe storms and flooding. The chapter addresses the growing community inequity and the threats to the island’s unique ecosystems and cultural resources.

It’s the first time that the NCA will include a focus on Indigenous knowledge to combat the climate crisis’ growing challenges, according to Frazier. For example, the chapter on Hawaii and the Pacific will feature several efforts to replant Indigenous crops, such as the Melai Mai Breadfruit Project in the Federated States of Micronesia. 

That effort aims to replace breadfruit trees in the outer islands of Yap after Super Typhoon Mayask struck the area in 2016. 

The chapter will also discuss traditional methods of agroforestry, the practice of growing trees next to crops and livestock so that they all mutually benefit, and aquaculture as ways to develop resilience against the effects of climate change.

The report will further examine the impacts on public health from hotter conditions associated with climate change.

The first NCA was released in 2001 and the previous one was released five years ago.

The latest report includes a push for more Hawaii and Pacific Island data in the national portions of the report, Frazier said. It acknowledges the need for more data from these regions, and how a history of colonialism has in some cases lead to a dearth of data there, she said.

Frazier previously served as a fellow at the East-West Center in Manoa. On Monday she traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a ceremony for the NSC at the White House. It wasn’t confirmed whether President Joe Biden would attend.

“I’m really excited to get this information in the hands of more community members and spread the word,” she said of the report. She said she’s especially encouraged by the community efforts featured in the report to combat climate change.

“We need to keep doing things to scale this up,” she said of those efforts.

Source : CivilBeat