Hawaiʻi’s Arctic Connections

By Dr. Nancy Lewis, Director of Research, East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi

Hawai‘i and the Arctic have stronger connections than you might think.

Balmy Hawai‘i might seem to be as far away from the frigid Arctic as you could imagine any place to be, but even America’s southernmost state has important Arctic ties. In fact, it was while en route to (unsuccessfully) seek the elusive Northwest Passage through the Arctic that British explorer James Cook became the first recorded Westerner to encounter the Hawaiian Islands in 1778.

Long before then, however, Hawai‘i had been receiving annual visitors from the Arctic in the form of migratory species like the Pacific golden plover, or kolea in Hawaiian. The kolea’s twice-yearly 2,500-mile non-stop flight between Hawai‘i and the Arctic is considered one of the animal kingdom’s greatest migratory feats.

The Pacific golden plover, or ‘kolea’ in Hawaiian. (Photo: Kalani Wong under Creative Commons license, Wikimedia)

Unable to touch down on water, the Pacific golden plover flies approximately 50 hours without stopping on its seasonal migration between Alaska and Hawai‘i. Each fall, the adult plovers make the southward journey first, leaving their young to make the flight on their own weeks later. How the fledgling birds are able to navigate to the Islands alone on their first trip remains a scientific mystery. Despite their impressively long migratory route, individual birds often return to the exact same lawn year after year.

In terms of biodiversity, we are connected to the Arctic through Humpback whales. Humpbacks from Arctic waters frequent the Islands each winter, generating a thriving whale-watching industry.

The Humpback whales that spend winter and spring breeding and calving in Hawai‘i migrate to Alaska in the summer to feed. (Photo: NOAA)

As with other islands worldwide, Hawai‘i is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels resulting from the melting of polar ice due to climate change. Already in recent years, the Islands have had to deal with increased beach erosion. For example, in certain parts of O‘ahu’s famous North Shore, beachfront homes have been threatened with collapse due to increasingly severe seasonal sand displacement.

Coastal erosion damage on O‘ahu’s North Shore. (Photo: Dolan Eversole/NOAA)

Experts forecast that a sea level rise of less than a meter could inundate Waikiki and other resort areas that serve as the state’s economic engine, driving our $14 billion a year tourist industry. Those who work and live along Hawai‘i’s shores are working to solve this particularly difficult challenge:

Watch to learn more about how sea level rise is threatening Waikiki and those who depend on its beaches for their livelihoods. (https://youtu.be/Iiu1zg2XYwY)

Hawaiʻi also has an important policy connection to the Arctic through the annual North Pacific Arctic Conference. Each August since 2011 this conference has brought together world experts on Arctic governance, navigation, natural resources, and other fields — as well as indigenous leaders, policy makers and stakeholders from other countries — for consultations at the East-West Center here in Honolulu.

At our most recent conference, we noted that while the Arctic continues to experience rapid change, these changes are producing a more complex situation than the one envisioned just a few years ago.

The East-West Center welcomes experts from around the world to its annual Arctic conference. (Photo: East-West Center)

Both states and non-state actors, including the East-West Center and other public diplomacy institutions, can play constructive roles in the effort to maintain the Arctic as a zone of peace and prosperity. They are also crucial to ensuring that the region’s resources are developed in a sustainable manner as links between the region and the global system continue to grow.

Last but not least, Hawai’i is taking a leadership role on place-based energy innovation, as exemplified by the Hawai’i Energy Excelerator. The Excelerator works with tech accelerators, investors, and government grant programs to develop customized models for energy innovation. This initiative could serve as a model for collaboration around new technology for Arctic-specific energy needs in the future.

Here in Hawai’i, we are thousands of miles from the Arctic, but thanks to our biodiversity, innovative energy initiatives, and efforts to promote international collaboration on Arctic issues, we are much closer to the region than one might think.

Thank you for reading and I welcome you to learn more by visiting our website at www.eastwestcenter.org. Mahalo.

About the Author:

Dr. Nancy D. Lewis is Director of Research at the East-West Center (EWC). Based in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, the EWC is a non-profit education & research organization established by Congress in 1960 to promote better relations and understanding between the governments and peoples of the Asia Pacific region, including the United States. A resident of Hawaiʻi for more than 30 years, Dr. Lewis previously served as a professor and associate dean at the University of Hawaiʻi. She holds A.B., M.A., M.S. and Ph.D. Degrees from UC Berkeley. You can contact her at LewisN[at]EastWestCenter.org.


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