Feature Story

Sea to Stars: The Smithsonian in Hawaiʻi

Smithsonian research efforts in Hawaiʻi span cultural and scientific disciplines to investigate questions that range from the sea to the stars.

Hawaiian island

The Smithsonian’s influence is worldwide, with research centers and field sites that span the globe. But this focus can be deep as well as broad, and powerful synergies can occur when different disciplines are concentrated in a single geographic area. Hawaiʻi is such an example, where research efforts that span cultural and scientific disciplines investigate questions that range from the sea to the stars.

For the Smithsonian, there is a special connection to Hawaiʻi. The extensive collections of the famed U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842, with numerous ethnological artifacts and natural history specimens from Hawaiʻi, formed a significant portion of holdings of the newly formed Smithsonian.

Hawaiʻi is home to one of the earliest Smithsonian field sites and some of its most recent research efforts, all taking advantage of a favorable confluence of environment, resources, and people.

MarineGEO and the Smithsonian Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network

MarineGEO Hawaiʻi is a recently launched Smithsonian research initiative and represents an important partnership between the Smithsonian and the University of Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology.

MarineGEO, short for Marine Global Earth Observatories, is a unique and growing network of coastal marine observation and research sites around the world focused on understanding changes where the sea meets the land—where both people and biodiversity are concentrated—and understanding how biodiversity maintains healthy coastal ecosystems.

“The Smithsonian is coordinating MarineGEO through its newly launched Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, which serves as the nerve center for the MarineGEO initiative,” says Director Dr. Emmett Duffy. “Our particular interest is discovering what provides resilience in these marine ecosystems. What makes marine life either resistant to environmental change or vulnerable to it, and how does that then affect us?”

Ocean life

MarineGEO sites are located in coastal environments to focus on near-shore waters where humans interact with biodiversity and where human effects and demands are highest. All network sites use standardized research approaches that give scientists the ability to make comparisons across time and space. Globally coordinated data are allowing scientists—for the first time—to comprehensively study how environmental change affects marine life around the world’s coasts.

The Smithsonian’s existing marine research sites in Maryland, Florida, Panama, and Belize serve as the research and development hubs of the initiative. MarineGEO Hawaiʻi is the first non-Smithsonian site in the network and extends the network’s reach into the Pacific. It is based at the cutting-edge research facilities of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island in Kaneʻohe Bay, Oʻahu, and is surrounded by 64 acres of coral reef designated by the state of Hawaiʻi to be used only for research activities.

Dr. Mary Hagedorn, Director of MarineGEO Hawaiʻi, is a scientist from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who specializes in corals and is an expert in cryopreservation, the freezing of tissues for conservation and research purposes. Although she works around the world, for 10 years she has been based at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. “This is one of the premier places on Earth to work on coral reefs,” says Hagedorn. “The confluence of available and relatively healthy coral right outside your doorstep, very sophisticated equipment, well-established research programs, knowledgeable researchers and staff, and good, clean water is an unbeatable combination.”

Coconut Island
Coconut Island, home to the MarineGEO site at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology

The University of Hawaiʻi and the Smithsonian have a long history of collaboration. Besides its excellent research facilities and protected marine environment, the University is home to marine scientists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, faculty, and a large pool of students in marine biology. “We believe that there’s an opportunity to get young people involved in the science and combine the collection of data with the training of the next generation to carry on this work that will be so important to their generation,” says Duffy. There is also a well-engaged local community of native Hawaiians in Kaneʻohe Bay that have interacted with a number of the scientists. In fact, the cultural aspect of MarineGEO Hawaiʻi will be an important element of the program going forward.

“In June and July of 2014, we participated in an experiment with all the other sites to look at predation on the reefs,” says Hagedorn, “and a group of Pacific Island students worked on it.”

The experiment focused on the ability of fishes to control nuisance algae and invading invertebrates through their feeding activities. “The question we’re researching,” explains Hagedorn, “is if you put out food, whether it’s kale for the animals that eat vegetable matter, or dried squid for the ones that eat meat, how long will it take before all that is gone? In some places where it’s very cold, it could take 24 hours for the food to be consumed, as opposed to a warm climate like Hawaiʻi, which could take 10 minutes. It’s a very simple experiment, but at the same time it’s very profound because it will be conducted in many oceans in the world at the same time.”

Predation experiment
A student assists with the predation experiment

Two students from the University of Hawaiʻi—one Micronesian and one Hawaiian—mentored participating high school students who are part of a larger training program in marine science. “The local cable company filmed the kids doing this research,” says Hagedorn, “and the program will be in English and Hawaiian, which is a very cool thing.”

The basic research plan, which goes into effect during the course of 2014, involves surveying biodiversity and studying how those organisms interact in the ecosystem. These quantitative samplings of the local marine communities will be focused on the organisms that create habitat—the reef communities, and possibly seagrasses and mangroves—to determine which species exist in those habitats, and in what abundance.

“We will also do surveys of the fish community because the fishes are, in a way, the engineers of the system and have large influences on energy flow through the food web,” says Duffy. “This is the rationale for the experiments the students are running in Hawaiʻi. And, of course, the health of fisheries is critically important for human food production.” In addition, research will look at ecosystem productivity, resistance to disturbances, and their response to environmental change. Data will be supplemented by other standardized measures of the physical characteristics and chemistry of each site.

“MarineGEO Hawaiʻi is very important, I think, because it is the first partnership that we’re really getting going,” says Duffy. “So, it will be a sort of proving ground for many of the research methods that we use and will also inform how we develop other partnerships. So, in some ways, it’s an experiment to understand how we can sustain a research partnership for a long time into the future.”

“The Smithsonian Consortia have been a major supporter of the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network in general and have actually provided, if you will, the secretariat for our operations as the program gets off the ground. The staff of the Consortia office have been really important to me and have helped organize much of what we’ve done in terms of getting workshops going and putting our steering committee together.”

The Urban Waterways Initiative

Taro paddies at the University of Hawaii
Students pass taro paddies on the grounds of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo by Katrina D. Lashley

Hawaiʻi is also a new environment for the Urban Waterways project team, led by Gail Lowe of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. With only 21 permanent staff members and a cadre of interns and volunteers, the Anacostia Community Museum is a small powerhouse whose exhibitions, research, and public programming make it a superb example of the Smithsonian’s off-Mall presence.

The Consortia-supported Urban Waterways Initiative is a research and educational endeavor to understand the present state of urban rivers and how they came to be in their current condition, and to explore how nearby residents interact with the waterways and begin to assume responsibility and stewardship for keeping the natural resource in good condition.

The Urban Waterways Initiative had its beginnings along the banks of D.C.’s “other river,” the Anacostia.

“We started by looking at the Anacostia River, the river in our area that seems to be most forgotten and neglected,” says Lowe. “We thought that our study would include some of the scientific challenges that the waterway faced, but we were really interested in the social and cultural history of urban waterways, of this particular river and other rivers like it.”

Over the last four years, the Urban Waterways Initiative has been investigating issues that range from degradation of the resource—pollution, toxic spills, and storm water runoff—to issues that relate to environmental justice and the ways in which community residents have tried to rediscover, reclaim, and restore their waterways. The project has resulted in numerous community programs, educational efforts, scholarly research, and the exhibition, Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement.

“As we were looking at some of the issues that arose around the Anacostia River, we wondered whether waterways, rivers, and watersheds in other urban and urbanizing areas face similar challenges,” says Lowe, “and, if so, would any of their solutions constitute best practices or approaches that other urban areas could employ.” The initiative expanded to reach out to groups and individuals in other urban areas, including London, England; Louisville, Kentucky; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Los Angeles, California.

The project team is currently in discussions with groups and individuals in Hawaiʻi. “Hawaiʻi presents a unique case,” says Lowe. “What are the challenges for water resources and water management in an island context with rivers and streams that are flowing from the mountains down to the sea in all directions? And how have the government and residents managed those resources?”

There are also issues on cultural awareness and heritage approaches to managing water and water resources. Hawaiʻi provides an opportunity to understand how residents of differing backgrounds and cultures gather together to manage the water resources in a confined, urbanizing area.

Taro and wall of temple site
Taro grows on the grounds of the Ulupō Heiau (temple) site in Kailua, Oahu. Photo by Katrina D. Lashley.

“What we’ve heard from residents and some of the community-based organizations on Oʻahu is that there’s a growing awareness of the traditional native Hawaiian ways of managing natural resources, and there’s a strong effort to reintroduce some of the more traditional ways of managing land and water,” says Lowe. “Those ways will benefit residents throughout the island of Oʻahu, and some of those approaches can be used on the other islands, as well.”

“It also teaches those of us in the continental United States how to be sensitive to the more traditional, ancient heritage ways of dealing with all of our natural resources and reengineering our way back, not to a pristine state, but to a more harmonious state of living, interacting, and using these natural resources,” says Lowe.

An important part of the Urban Waterways Initiative is allowing local communities to tell their stories, document their experiences, and exchange useful information with other communities.  The initiative also works to bring together stakeholders, scientists, government policymakers, activists, and citizens in community forums.

“We certainly hope to help the local organizations in Hawaiʻi to build up their own documentary files and archives,” says Sharon Reinckens, Deputy Director of the Anacostia Community Museum. “That actually is a very empowering kind of arrangement and the Museum always likes to assist communities in that way. But we really look forward to documentation, especially with videos that we can share through our website and through our network, so information is widely available and easily accessible.”  The team also expects that organizations and individuals in Hawaiʻi will become active members of the growing network of environmental stewards that their project is helping to develop.

In addition, some groups and communities from Hawaiʻi will be highlighted in, or be contributors to, an upcoming publication that will complement the initiative’s Reclaiming the Edge exhibition. “We’re also planning a symposium for spring of 2015 that will draw some speakers from Hawaiʻi and from the other urban waterways that we’ve been researching so that there will be an opportunity for scholarly and community exchange,” says Lowe. 

“We’re passionate about doing this kind of research, not just for research’s sake, but to make the information available for people so that they can make changes in their own lives,” says Reinckens.  “And that’s always the motivation that drives us.”

“The support of the Consortia has been absolutely crucial,” says Lowe. “It’s provided us with a stable floor of fiscal support. But the Consortia have also provided us an opportunity to meet with other SI colleagues to be able to talk about subject matters across disciplinary lines, and that’s helped us to think more broadly about our project, about our topic. So, the Consortia have really incubated this work and given it a chance to grow and develop.”

“Consortia support actually elevated our project to a new level,” says Reinckens. “They encouraged us to reach out to people in Hawaiʻi, and assisted us with that by making contacts and suggesting different ways of collaborating across disciplines and across the Smithsonian.”

The Submillimeter Array

The eight antennas of the Submillimeter Array

In the 1950s, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory established a satellite observatory station in the mountains of Hawaiʻi, becoming the first long-term Smithsonian presence in the islands.

In 2003, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory built the world’s first Submillimeter Array (SMA) at the summit of the highest mountain in Hawaiʻi, Mauna Kea, in a site managed by the University of Hawaiʻi. The location is ideal for astronomical observations because of the dark skies, low humidity, good weather, and clean air. At 4,080 meters (13,386 feet), the SMA is positioned above the water vapor in the atmosphere that absorbs submillimeter emissions at sea level. 

Protoplanetary disk
Protoplanetary “transition” disk imaged in fine detail with the SMA. Image by Sean Andrews

The SMA detects and measures electromagnetic emissions at submillimeter wavelengths to provide clues to the birth and death of stars and the origins of the planets. Submillimeter emissions are generated by gas and dust in huge interstellar clouds. When stars are born out of such interstellar clouds, the Submillimeter Array can see into those clouds when other types of telescopes cannot, and by measuring the submillimeter emissions, witness the birth of a star. In addition, the SMA is particularly sensitive to the residual disks of material surrounding these newly formed stars, out of which planets form.

The SMA observes the universe through eight movable antennas with reflectors 20 feet across. The signals from the antennas are amplified and combined electronically to give resolution that is equivalent of a single antenna of 0.3 miles across. It is a joint project between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Two recent Consortia grants for Hawaiʻi-based research focusing on Mars join the SMA in enhancing the Smithsonian’s capacity to examine and describe Life in the Cosmos.  At some point in its history, Mars was a strong candidate for a habitable planet, and it has much to teach us about the origins of life on Earth. Results from the research of the Consortia team lead by Bob Craddock, Ancient Basaltic Sand Dunes in Hawaii, will help us understand how dunes form on the surface of Mars and the history of the Hawaiian Islands.

Gareth Morgan’s team takes a multi-instrument approach to the 3D characterization of Martian analogs in Hawaiʻi to explore habitable conditions in the solar system beyond Earth. Although there is no water and little atmosphere on the surface of Mars, future missions to Mars may find organic molecules and evidence of past or current life on Mars in ice-cemented ground under its surface. Dr. Morgan and his team have used observations from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to study buried channels carved by deep groundwater more than 5 kilometers below the surface of Mars. The team received Consortia support to examine underground ice on Hawaiian mountaintops to better understand what type of life scientists should look for under the surface of Mars.

From Hawaiʻi’s abundant coastal marine environment, to the relationships of the communities with their water resources, to the universe as viewed through the exceptionally clear skies atop its tallest mountain, Hawaiʻi truly demonstrates the Smithsonian’s reach from sea to stars.