Kauai News

UH Helping Improve Ocean Data Access for Indigenous Coastal Communities

Posted December 25, 2021, 10:30 AM HST ·Updated December 22, 1:15 PM

Indigenous coastal communities have depended on ocean resources for more than millennia, but climate change is profoundly impacting these communities by creating a more unpredictable ocean.

The Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System within the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology is collaborating with partners around the Pacific and in Alaska to improve access to ocean data for indigenous coastal communities through a new project funded by the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator program.

A fishing boat operates in waters off the Marshall Islands. PC: Phil Welch

“Increased access to ocean data is essential for coastal communities’ safety and livelihoods,” said Melissa Iwamoto, director of the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System and co-principal on the project. “We are excited by how this project will help us to quickly advance our goals to address our user needs through collaboration with new and existing partners across disciplines and geographies.”

The project’s goal is to get oceanographic data into the hands of indigenous communities in a way that takes advantage of existing, lower-cost wave buoy technology and enables sustained community-led stewardship of the buoys. The team aims to revolutionize the status quo by providing new tools and new connections that provide critical safety information on a local level.

“Wave data, for example, can help a local mariner determine whether it is safe to fish that day or travel to another island to deliver goods,” said Melissa Iwamoto, director of the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System and co-principal on the NSF project. “Our partners and users are asking for more ocean information to enhance safety and improve decision-making, and many also want more autonomy in maintaining the instrumentation.”

Partners will collectively work to develop solutions to overcome existing hurdles of observing technologies that are too expensive to purchase and sustain when conducted in isolation. They include three regional systems of the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System, which includes the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System; Sofar Ocean, a low-cost buoy and sensor company; and indigenous partners from villages in the Marshall Islands and American Samoa via the Marshall Islands Conservation Society and the National Park of American Samoa; the Quiluete Tribe and Quinault Indian Nation on the coast of Washington state; and 11 whaling villages in the Arctic.

In the initial phase of the project, partners will work to assess coastal community needs and determine how existing lower-cost Sofar ocean spotter wave buoy and smart mooring technologies can address those needs. Working together, they will develop community-driven stewardship programs that can maintain the buoys, using the strengths of the regional systems to serve data to remote communities in ways that work for them.

The collaboration embraces new, lower-cost technologies and uses the power of local ownership for maintaining ocean observations that are critical to serve the blue economy worldwide. The indigenous communities in turn will provide feedback on the utility of the technologies, as well as offer input on ocean conditions from centuries of local observations.

In addition to providing localized data for coastal communities, the data will also be available for large-scale scientific research to improve understanding and prediction of coastal dynamics, especially in a changing ocean.

If funded for phase two of the accelerator program, the team’s work will broaden participation and networking to serve the needs of underserved communities and further adapt innovative technologies and techniques.

Launched in 2019, the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator is an intense, hands-on nine-month journey that builds upon basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal impact.

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