USGS Geologist Lays Out the Unprecedented Challenges Ahead
A devastating chain of events—believed to have started with strong winds toppling over electric power lines onto a section of overgrown land on the Hawaiian island of Maui—has caused the US’s deadliest fire in over a century, as well as the potentially disastrous contamination of a pristine coral reef.
Yet the groundwork for Lahaina’s August inferno was started a long time ago, due to human intervention in a natural paradise. When the Kingdom of Hawaii became a sovereign state at the end of the 18th century, this historic coastal town was called the “Venice of the Pacific.” An abundance of water flowed through the area’s streams, waterways, and canals from the nearby West Maui Mountains, where as much as 375 inches of rain falls every year.
But in the intervening years, massive pineapple and sugar cane plantations were established, not only stripping out the biodiversity of the island but also diverting the plentiful water sources to hydrate the thirsty crops. Meanwhile invasive guinea grass was introduced to feed the growing herds of imported livestock that filled land not taken up by crops.
Eventually these vast plantations closed, leaving behind a dry and barren landscape, a quarter of which is now covered by invasive grasses that can serve as kindling for the spread of fires. The August wildfires were the deadliest yet, turning more than 2,200 buildings into burned-out shells, tragically taking at least 98 lives and leaving thousands of residents homeless.
But while wildfire destruction is becoming more common around the world, the situation in Lahaina is uniquely tragic. Close to the shore sits a tropical coral reef, which is at risk of contamination from toxic runoff from the debris of a modern town reduced to cinders. Ash tainted with contaminants, such as asbestos, lead and arsenic, is blowing into the ocean.
USGS Priorities: Townsfolk Before Reefs
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is one of many government agencies coming to the aid of the islands in the aftermath of the disaster. USGS research geologist Curt Storlazzi stresses the importance of prioritizing the needs of the townsfolk before the coral reef: “First and foremost, we have to worry about the town rebuild, and then the next most important thing we have to think about is the reefs and what they mean to the people.”
“First and foremost, we have to worry about the town rebuild, and then the next most important thing we have to think about is the reefs and what they mean to the people.”
“It might be very minor compared to the loss of lives and housing,” he tells The Earth & I. “But after that, [the reef] is the next most important thing to the local community and that’s why they have asked us to come and help them.”
He outlines the problem for the reef—an organism which thrives on purity—situated close to a source of pollution.
The chemicals and metals released by the burning buildings, vehicles, boats, and modern human accessories entered the clear waters of the ocean.
“Coral reef usually grows in clear, oligotrophic—or nutrient-poor—water, and now a lot of structures were burned and so there’s a lot of nutrients, there’s a lot of contaminants, there’s a lot of material, there’s a lot of ash that has gotten into the coastal ocean, making it very turbid,” Storlazzi says.
“The water is now no longer clear, no longer oligotrophic—it’s now nutrient-rich, and there is a lot of contaminants in there. These are all things which will stress the near shore coral reef ecosystem.”
Impacts on Livelihoods and Food
“Not only will [the contaminants] stress the ecosystem—a lot of local folk fish those waters, and those nutrients and contaminants can get up into the food chain,” Storlazzi says.
As part of the short-term disaster relief effort, the USGS sent out equipment, such as active sensors, to measure how nutrients are affecting the pH levels of the ocean, as they can cause coastal acidification and make the reef dissolve.
While the vessels that went down in the harbor and just offshore are being recovered by the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Hawaii, an ocean cleanup is a far more difficult task. The pollutants in the water cannot simply be scooped out but will have to be cleansed by nature, gradually: “Basically, the ocean will flush out the reefs, but it takes time, as we have just put a massive input of new material in,” Storlazzi says.
[T]hey cannot rely on historical data and so are still in the very early stages of their work. This will take time: Contaminant analysis is expensive and turnover time in laboratories can take months.
As far as Storlazzi is aware, a land-based runoff of sediments, nutrients, and contaminants impacting a coral reef is unique in US history. The current catastrophe can only be compared to events in World War II when tankers and ships were torpedoed in Hawaii, Guam, and the Florida Keys, causing great destruction. Meanwhile, other marine scientists, such as Andrea Kealoha of the University of Hawaii's oceanography department, are working hard to understand the impact of an urban fire on coral reef health. As far as they are aware, this has never occurred before, and they cannot rely on historical data and so are still in the very early stages of their work. This will take time: Contaminant analysis is expensive, and turnover time in laboratories can take months.
Lessons from Hurricane Maria
Although the Lahaina disaster is unprecedented, possible solutions have been applied elsewhere in the world. Storlazzi explains: “Coral reefs have been smashed before, and other countries around the world have looked to nature-based solutions to better provide services to local communities in the aftermath.”
Puerto Rico’s response to the damage caused by the storms of 2017 may be relevant to Lahaina’s plight: “The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) just awarded Puerto Rico $38.6 million to restore and even improve those reefs which were damaged in the tropical storms of 2017 to provide coastal protection, making those coastal communities more resilient to increased storminess and sea level rise,” Storlazzi says.
FEMA officials say the Puerto Rico hazard migration grant was the first time money has been allocated as part of a federal disaster risk reduction policy to restore a natural resource to protect survivors after a disaster.
The work is painstaking. Scientists extract living coral fragments 10-to-15 feet below the surface, clean the damaged pieces, and store them in an area free of sand and rocks for six months. The restoration team then prepares a special cement epoxy that is carried in buckets to the sea floor by divers to glue the cleaned-up coral to the reefs. The results are worthwhile—this project will shelter 800 buildings on the shore, as well as protect endangered sea turtles that lay their eggs on the beach in nesting season.
Storlazzi thinks a similar approach in Hawaii would be equally positive, supported by the scientific knowledge of the USGS. “This is one thing the State of Hawaii may look to do, not only to bring those reefs back to where they were, but in the longer term enhanced to provide coastal protection, to act like a submerged break water,” he says.
The longer-term role will be to provide guidance so that the investment and rebuilding can be done as cost-effectively as possible: “Can we do that in a way that is safer, works better with nature, is increasingly resilient to future storms and sea level rising?”
Prepping for Future Resilience
Storlazzi was on one of the writing teams of the 5th National Climate Assessment for the Pacific, which is scheduled for publication in Fall 2023. One of the concerns examined is how to make villages, towns, and cities safer in a future where the possibility of these kinds of events are on the increase due to decreasing rainfall, increasing lightning, and climatic changes affecting vegetation.
“We don’t want these things to happen, but one of the missions of the USGS is to learn from these events to prepare for the future. If we don’t learn, it makes the disaster even worse.”
He says: “The projections are there is more likely to be more fires in the Pacific islands in the future. Anything we can learn here will not only help now but also will be increasingly important down the road.”
He stresses: “We don’t want these things to happen, but one of the missions of the USGS is to learn from these events to prepare for the future. If we don’t learn, it makes the disaster even worse.”
Unfortunately, the Lahaina fire is only the latest risk to the islands’ coral reef. As well as making wildfires more likely, climate change has also had a long-term impact on coral reef decline. Since 2009, the United Nations-supported Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network has found that 1% of coral reef are lost each year—14% across the globe have disappeared—and the reefs off West Maui haven’t been spared. Coupled with this, in 2015, almost half of the coral here was lost to coral bleaching.
Of course, coral reefs are more than beautiful buffers around a shoreline. “Coral reefs are extremely important to the local economy of Hawaii, and this is mainly driven by tourism—they want to snorkel in those reefs, they want to sit on those beaches on sand generated by those reefs, they want to go fishing in the waters of those reefs,” Storlazzi says.
One of the most important things the coral reefs do is protect those coastal communities, and that provides tens of millions [of dollars] throughout the State of Hawaii, over $800 million a year in protection, he adds. “The reefs are part of the Hawaiian creation story, the social fabric of the place.”
It seems clear that the reefs will not only be central to the creation story but also to the future narrative of Hawaii, providing safety, pleasure, and prosperity—this time aided by human intervention.
Our islands need healing, our islands need cleansing of the land, our people need healing, our children need healing. Aloha, true pure Aloha will bring true healing to overcome this tragedy. Aloha kekahi i kekahi, Aloha ʻāina, Aloha i ka wai [Love for and to each other, Love of the land, Love for the waters].
—Kahu Pohāleo Lokoʻolu Quintero
*Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and teacher of English and Forest Schools based in Scotland.