Hurricane Hell

From the diary of Justin Hite, KFBRP Field Supervisor

I hope it is not too insensitive to ponder Hurricane Season in Hawai’i while the effects of Hurricane Florence are still unfolding in North Carolina.  But from the perspective of a honeycreeper-lover like myself, this has been a stressful chaotic season. Hector thundered monstrously by to the south. Lane caused widespread panic and preparations as it stalled and banked and dumped absurd amounts of rain, but then mostly slipped by without a knockout punch. Two hundred-mile wide Olivia is losing steam but on course to slam directly into Maui. As I write this it is only 200 miles away from landfall. Each time a hurricane looms, crews must be pulled off their conservation efforts in the field over concerns for their safety, and our efforts are redirected to securing human lives and property instead. Countless conservation hours are diverted to shutting down and reopening our office.

Meanwhile the last few hundred ‘Akikiki, many of which are currently upside down on an ‘Ohia branch and tearing a small caterpillar out from under a cluster of lichen, are presumably oblivious to the potential threats they faced this summer. Hurricanes Iwa (1982) and Iniki (1992) devastated Kaua’i’s native forest birds, speeding along the extinction of three species, Kama’o, Kauai O’o and the O’u. What would have happened if we’d received a direct hit from Hector or Lane? What if Olivia had tracked further north and came directly at Kaua’i? What will Olivia actually do to Maui’s two critically endangered birds, the Akohekohe and Kiwikiu? 

Hurricanes are a natural part of the Hawaiian ecosystem. Honeycreepers have been here for upwards of 5 million years, and have dealt with countless hurricanes. But staring down a gigantic storm is one thing when you are standing tall and proud and healthy. When your population is at a tiny fraction of its former strength, when you are isolated on a patch of habitat on Kaua’i 1% of its former size, it doesn’t look as good. Unfortunately, hurricanes are expected to become more frequent and more severe under most climate change scenarios.

We may be “one good hurricane away” from losing several of our native birds. May that storm never hit. Though, of course, some day it will. Damn!

Hurricane Lane, as seen from space. NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory

Hurricane Lane, as seen from space. NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory