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The Park Science Podcast

Insightful conversations about science, nature, culture, and "wicked problems" in our national parks. Hear the stories behind the headlines. Produced by Park Science, a digital magazine of the National Park Service.


3. Mosquitoes Are Key to Hawaiian Honeycreeper Survival


[PODCAST INTRODUCTION, WITH MUSIC: Welcome to Park Science Podcast, a podcast of Park Science magazine that highlights milestones and contributions to science made by parks and programs of the National Park Service. Find our podcast series as well as the full Park Science magazine online at nps.gov/parkscience.]


CHRIS: This generation of conservationists, this generation of outreach people, this generation of everybody, are ones who can make a difference. If we make that difference, if we enact these solutions, we can save these birds.

JERI: I’m Jeri Stoller, and I’m going to tell you a story about birds and mosquitoes. Hawaiian honeycreepers are a group of small native forest birds found only in Hawaii. Historically, there were more than 50 species of honeycreepers. But now there are only 17, and many of them are nearing extinction. A big cause of their decline is avian malaria[1], which causes these colorful birds to weaken and die.

Avian malaria is a disease carried by mosquitoes, but mosquitoes may also be part of the solution. Scientists are working to breed incompatible male mosquitoes that can mate with female mosquitoes and prevent them from having offspring. Birds Not Mosquitoes[2] is a multi-agency partnership working to protect native Hawaiian honeycreepers from extinction. I talked to some of the people working on this project to find out more. [SOUND OF BIRDS SINGING]

JERI: Can we start by each of you introducing yourself and your role in Birds Not Mosquitoes?

CHRIS: Hi, I am Dr. Chris Farmer. I am with the American Bird Conservancy. I am Hawaii program director. I am based on the island of Hawai`i, and I do a lot of different things with Birds Not Mosquitoes. I’ve been here since the beginning and was one of the people, along with the National Park Service, that helped to create and organize the entire effort.

LUKA: Aloha, my name is Luka Zavas. I live on the island of O‘ahu. I'm from the east side in ʻĀhuimanu. I also work for the American Bird Conservancy as the outreach manager for the Birds Not Mosquitoes partnership.

JERI: When did scientists start to notice a decline in honeycreepers?

CHRIS: I'm sure the scientists and the people on the islands observed, because when the Europeans arrived, they brought so many non-native species, including mosquitoes and avian malaria, that many, many species got wiped out. We lost so many of our species. We have about a third of our native avifauna left. Everybody was noticing this. The first paper that is in the scientific literature that talks about this, that did a really good study, looking at the relationship between mosquitoes, avian malaria, and the honeycreepers, was in the late 60s, 1968.

LUKA: Prior to that, when you go through the nūpepa, the newspapers written in traditional ʻŌlelo Hawai`i, there are articles from early as 1871 noticing the decline in birds, so the sounds disappearing. And even though they didn't have a reason or why it was happening, but it was just a drastic loss in our avifauna was noticeable even from back then before we could actually put a pulse on why the declines were happening.

JERI: If these birds have been declining for so long, why are we focusing on it right now?

RYAN: The issues we're dealing with today really came to the forefront around 2017. That's Ryan Monello. He works for the National Park Service as the program manager of the Pacific Island Network Inventory and Monitoring Division[3]. He's also a biologist.

RYAN: And that was brought about by collaborative work that was done between the My Forest Bird Recovery project[4] and the National Park Service, where we monitor these forest bird populations every five years. And I'll use forest birds and honeycreepers interchangeably. So it included Haleakalā National Park as well as other really important nature reserves that exist on East Maui.

And we surveyed all of them together and then did a joint report and found that kiwikiu, which are the Maui parrot bills, were below 200 in population size, and so that's extremely concerning. We thought they were closer to 500. And over the prior decade, they had declined to less than 200 individuals. And the ʻākohekohe, which is also referred to as the Maui crested honeycreeper, was below 2,000 individuals. But the ʻākohekohe actually has a smaller range than the kiwikiu, so both of these species are just really on the forefront of the next birds that could potentially go extinct.

JERI: Those are significant declines.

RYAN: At the same time, partners in Kauaʻi, so the Kauaʻi Forest Bird Recovery Project, and they were working with USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] and others, were finding very similar trends in Kaua‘i and dramatic declines in some of the endemic species that occurred there. And real concern about their long-term persistence. So really, the alarm was raised around 2017. People have been worried about it for a while, but I think what changed was it looked like things were happening on the landscape much faster than we anticipated.

JERI: How did you collect data on how many birds were in an area?

RYAN: Yeah. So the bird surveys consist of point counts. And so bird surveyors go out on established routes. What they'll do is they'll go out and they periodically stop at different points along the transect. And they do these same transects each time and mostly by sound in Hawaii. Because you rarely see these birds in the wet rainforests that they tend to occur in, or even the drier forests, they're hard to see. You can estimate how far away they are, and then what species you're hearing. But then you can take that data and when you analyze it, you can estimate the density of the birds in the area as well as extrapolate it out to population sizes. And so that's how we can get to knowing the approximate number of individuals we still have out on the landscape.

JERI: So surveyors stop at points along a route and listen to the bird song. Then they record how many they hear. From this you can estimate how many birds are in the area. Why are the birds declining?

RYAN: So the primary reason is avian malaria, and avian malaria is an introduced disease in Hawaii, and southern house mosquitoes are the vector of avian malaria. They are what transmit avian malaria to the birds, and that is also an introduced species. So we're dealing with two introduced species that both transmit and cause the disease. Well, until 2017, they hadn't really been recognized as invading these uppermost elevations, because they're cold intolerant—malaria in particular can only survive and reproduce if temperatures are on average above a certain amount each year.

And so these higher elevations where the birds were still living, and what we called a refugia essentially, had not been invaded by the mosquitoes, nor the disease really, yet. And so what's happened more in the last decade is that the mosquitoes and avian malaria have started to make incursions into these upper elevation areas that used to be too cold for them. And now they can’t support it, so these birds are contracting the disease. And they have no resistance to it, because they evolved in isolation of it in Hawaii and lost all their potential resistance that maybe their ancestors had to prevent malaria.

And so now when this new disease comes in—and this is not uncommon—when you find in certain island environments different things like this happening, these species are completely vulnerable to it. And so that's the primary source. There are other reasons for decline. For example, introduced predators and loss of habitat. Right now, in the areas where we're working and most concerned about in the Park Service are areas that are still really good habitat. Upper elevation tend to be cooler but are now being invaded, at least in pulses at a frequent enough occurrence to where these birds are getting infected and dying of it, and that's causing population declines.

JERI: If conditions don’t improve, what will happen to the birds?

RYAN: And so overall, we expect, for example, with kiwikiu and ʻākohekohe, which both occur in the upper elevations forests of Haleakalā, we probably have somewhere in the order of two to 10 years before they go extinct, roughly.

JERI: Why are these birds so important, Luka?

LUKA: They have a biocultural relationship with Hawaii, and so when I talk to folks about them, I first like to start off with like you have to imagine five to six million years ago when the islands of Kauaʻi and Ni‘ihau, which are the oldest islands in the main Hawaiian islands that we live on today, but at that time, they were just newly birthed out of the sea. So these were like brand spanking new islands, and these birds, the Hawaiian honeycreepers, their ancestor, came at that time and from there, adaptive radiation, you know, from different relationships that these birds have built with the different plant species that made it also here to Hawaii.

Insects that were here too and created these like intricate relationships that helped one another evolve. So some of the plants now have flowers that mimic the beak of the bird, and so they must be pollinated by that bird, or they must have their seeds dispersed by that bird, or have their, like, twigs cleaned by a certain honeycreeper because of the way that it, like, pecks out and acts like a dentist of the forest and keeps the forest from being too overburdened with insects and such. And so those are the great biological relationships that these birds have with these plant species.

That abundance is what Hawaiians saw when they first then came to Hawaii. I just try to imagine what it sounded like, because it really was a bird paradise. As we humans are like, just fascinated by the facts that birds can fly, that they can get their little bodies off the ground, up into the air. And that association was really valued. Because the Hawaiians they came, they saw these relationships, they watched and learned how these relationships interacted one another as they learned how to insert themselves into this island ecosystem and build a life for themselves.

JERI: What did these birds mean to the people who lived there?

LUKA: So the islands are kind of split. So there's the Wao Akua, which is the realm of the gods. And then there's like, middle sections that are like...there's like a Wao Kanaka which is then or where the people are living. And so they saw that these Hawaiian honeycreepers that they lived from seashore all the way up to the tops of the mountains, were flying between the Wao Kanaka or the place of the people to the place of the gods. So these birds became like messengers of the gods. They became different body forms of the gods, representations of the gods.

JERI: How did Hawaiians show their connection to the birds? Their feathers were incorporated into ‘ahu ’ula, so ‘ahu ’ula are the capes, the feather capes. Mahiole are the feathered helmets. And then you have kāhili, which are the standards, and then the lei hulu. And each one had different meanings behind them. But if you think that, like the mahiole has over 200,000 different feathers in it, that means that generations of families were going out and collecting those feathers and planning of how they’re getting created, and so their loss is really that loss in that story.

So for generations, you know, you knew when you saw this bird or this product that not only were you looking at all the hours and love and intention that was put into creating it by the person who made it but also all the hours and time it took for the people to go out and collect it. And then also the hours and time it took for each of those birds to, like, grow their feathers and become, you know, alive and generations. And then being able to see that these feathers are also connected all the way back to that first ancestor of the Hawaiian honeycreeper that came. And so that genealogical story that is held within those are starting to get cut off.


JERI: What were some of the first ideas that scientists had to save these birds?

CHRIS: You know, we've watched the honeycreepers vanish from the lowlands and start to decline. And you know all the scientists working on them have been noticing this over decades. And there's been intensive work by the National Park Service, by the State Division of Forestry and Wildlife, by others like ABC and other organizations involved here. And we've done a lot of different things. We've done fencing to get out the ungulates, the non-native things like pigs and goats that destroy the habitat. We have done predator removal; we have reforested; we have worked incredibly hard. Everybody in Hawaii is so committed for conservation and worked so hard to restore and protect the native species that are left.

And one of the things that's become painfully obvious over the last decade or so is that the one thing that we can't really address at the landscape scale, is mosquitoes. There's not a fence. There's not a way to protect them. You could have small aviaries where the captive propagation programs can protect small numbers of these birds. But we've tried to do some things, pig wallows in some places where the pigs destroy the habitat, knock down the hāpu‘u ferns and make perfect little breeding pools. If you reduce those, you reduce numbers of mosquitoes. If you find where they're breeding, you can treat them with larvicide and get rid of the larvae, but we can't do a broad-spectrum insecticide like something like DDT that people have heard about, or some of the other insecticides that are more recent.

JERI: Why not?

CHRIS: With the forest that we're talking about the birds, but also where people get their water from, and there's also lots of endangered insects. And so if you spray these insecticides up there, you would wipe out the entire ecosystem, and you destroy it that way. So you wouldn't be able to protect anything. And so there was no good, successful, landscape-scale approach to solving mosquito problem. It’s something that we've known about for decades, and it's been scary.

But with the decades of research and millions of dollars into human health, the Hawaiian conservation, they're able to build upon that and find this tool, the incompatible insect technique that allows us to implement something that has been tested and tried for human health and works on those mosquitoes and deploy it for conservation. So that is what we are working on with the Birds Not Mosquitoes project is a way of doing that tool at the landscape scale in Hawaii to protect the remaining forest birds.

LUKA: Another question people ask is like, "Oh, if we get rid of mosquitoes, how is that going to affect Hawaii?” Because in some places, mosquitoes are important for like pollination and some birds do eat mosquitoes as part of their diet. Well, in Hawaii, they only got here like 200 years ago, and in that time, they haven't become important or the sole, you know, pollinator or food source for anything. Our ʻōpeʻapeʻa or bat may eat mosquito if it happens to fly in front of their mouth, but nobody is reliant upon it. And so if we were to get rid of all of them, like actually be able to eradicate them from the islands, we would only see benefits, no negative environmental cascades of a missing piece.

JERI: Ryan, how does the incompatible insect technique work to reduce mosquitoes?

RYAN: Yeah. So the way that incompatible insect technique works that we're using is that we have southern house mosquitoes on the landscape that occur in Maui. They're non-native, but they're a wild population that exists there, and they're what are causing the problems. Insects throughout the world, about 50 percent of insects, roughly, carry a naturally occurring bacteria that's called Wolbachia. And when you look at those mosquitoes that are on the ground in Maui, the males and the females when they mate either don't have Wolbachia, or they have the same type of Wolbachia in general, and that allows them to successfully reproduce.

But if you can take a male that has a different type of Wolbachia bacteria, it's a different strain. Same bacteria, but it's just a different strain, and you put it in a male mosquito and it tries to mate with a female mosquito that has a different strain of Wolbachia, then you can find situations where their eggs do not hatch. Essentially it ends the potential for offspring.

JERI: So when males and females with a different kind of Wolbachia mate, their eggs don’t hatch. How do you know what kind of Wolbachia the mosquitoes have?

RYAN: You have to test different strains of Wolbachia to see which ones will work. And so we've done that, working with our partners. This is being done through a cooperative agreement with The Nature Conservancy and Verily Life Sciences. So we're using the same species of mosquitoes from Hawaii, and they are then reared with a different strain of Wolbachia bacteria in them.

And then you separate out the males and the females, and then you release the males in the wild with the wild females, and you release so many that they overflood the female population. And so females generally are only going to breed with male mosquitoes that have a different Wolbachia type is the idea. And it basically causes the population to crash if you can get a high enough overflooding ratio.

And so this is being done around the world in different urban areas for human health concerns. And we're now looking to apply this to this situation we have in Maui. It would be the first time it's done for natural resource or conservation reasons.

JERI: How does releasing more mosquitoes affect people?

RYAN: It's really important for people to understand that we've come a really long way in terms of the technology we use to separate males and female mosquitoes, and so when we release those mosquitoes, we're releasing male mosquitoes, and the potential for error is only one in 900 million. Importantly, the male mosquitoes that are released, male mosquitoes do not bite people. So even if you were standing in the middle of one of these releases and you had thousands of mosquitoes that were suddenly in the area where you're at, you wouldn't experience any more bites.

CHRIS: There's a lot of concern that this is a genetically modified organism or some sort of GMO, and it is very much not. There's no change to any of the genome of either the bacteria or the mosquito.

JERI: What step in the process for implementing the incompatible insect technique are you at now?

RYAN: Yeah. So it's pretty exciting. To this point, we have both, and I say “we” as a group, Birds Not Mosquitoes, as well as our partners, such as Verily Life Sciences, have figured out how to successfully breed the mosquitoes in captivity in mass, which is tricky in and of itself to get done, so they could produce the number of mosquitoes that need to be produced. They have successfully transinfected mosquitoes in the lab with a Wolbachia that is not compatible with the mosquitoes that occur on the landscape naturally. And then we have taken those mosquitoes and done some initial trials to determine how long they live, how far they travel, and how well they're going to be transported from where they're being produced in California to Hawaii.

And so we've completed all that. It's gone well. And so now we are preparing our plans to implement this at a landscape level. So ideally, starting in mid-November, we will start treating approximately 3,000 acres both on and off Park Service lands in key conservation areas for these birds, where we can distribute the male mosquitoes. And then what we aim to see is suppression in the wild mosquitoes of those landscapes.

JERI: How long do you expect this project to take? RYAN: There's pros and cons with it, so one of the drawbacks of it is you have to keep doing it indefinitely until you have another tool. But on the whole, we can't stop doing it. That can also be seen as, you know, positive. Because, essentially, if for some reason you needed to reverse what we're doing on the landscape, we could just stop releasing incompatible male mosquitoes, and things would go back to how they were. JERI: Do you expect honeycreepers to return to past population sizes?

RYAN: Right now our primary goal is to preserve the ones that we have and prevent further declines and stabilize them. Everyone working on this would absolutely love to see range expansions and population increases into the future. Right now, we're in such a critical state that our entire goal is to simply prevent them from going extinct on the landscape and maintain a viable population.

LUKA: And I just want to add that this project IIT is, you know, is aiming to suppress mosquitoes, not eradicate them. So I also like to think of this as a, like, not the answer to our mosquito problem or to our bird problem. This is our “let's give us some time” answer. By releasing these incompatible males and ensuring that the critical habitats, not even like the expansive habitat these birds could be in but just like these tiny, core critical habitats, are oases of spaces where they can be safe. So that we have time to talk about what are next steps, as both the community and as conservationists, of, you know, what does mosquito control in the future look like?

And then also that, you know, mosquito control isn't the only thing the birds need. The birds still need rat control. The birds still need, you know, fences to be put up. The birds still need habitat restoration. A kind of, like, success in conservation as a whole that we did really good conservation for our birds, folks, all around, would that be I have an ʻiʻiwi singing outside of my door in Waikīkī.

We won't see those level successes in the near future. I'm thinking maybe like my sons might be able to see that, or his children might be able to see that. But that is the island, that is the vision that we are all working towards, and that is like I would say that's when I would like pop out a bottle of champagne and be, like, I was successful kind of thing is when we can see something like that.


JERI: Thank you Luka, Ryan, and Chris, and good luck with this project. I’m Jeri Stoller. Thanks for listening.

[PODCAST CONCLUSION, WITH MUSIC: This has been Park Science Podcast. Catch up on more podcasts and articles at nps.gov/parkscience.]


Credits: Bird sounds: Daniel Lane, XC27366. Accessible at https://xeno-canto.org/27366. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0; Brooks Rownd, XC122341. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/122341. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Podcast length: 23 minutes and 47 seconds



About the author: Jeri Stoller is a Scientists in Parks intern with the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region Inventory and Monitoring Division.

[1] https://www.usgs.gov/diseases-of-terrestrial-wildlife/avian-malaria

[2] https://www.birdsnotmosquitoes.org/

[3] https://www.nps.gov/im/pacn/index.htm

[4] https://kauaiforestbirds.org/]

Birds Not Mosquitoes project partners Chris Farmer, Luka Zavas, and Ryan Monello discuss a modern mosquito-control technique to save Hawaii’s forest birds from imminent extinction. This project is the first time this technique has been used to protect animals. Hosted by Jeri Stoller. A production of Park Science magazine, Winter 2023 issue (December 29, 2023), https://www.nps.gov/subjects/parkscience.

2. Tuning in to Science: How to Reach Remote Communities through Radio


[PODCAST INTRODUCTION, WITH MUSIC: Welcome to Park Science Podcast, a podcast of Park Science magazine that highlights milestones and contributions to science made by parks and programs of the National Park Service. Find our podcast series as well as the full Park Science magazine online at nps.gov/parkscience.]


CHRIS: It was 11 a.m. on a Thursday, and like every week, I was sitting in front of a microphone, surrounded by the sliders and dials of a big sound board. I had just finished my latest science program that I would do live at the local community radio station in Flagstaff, Arizona. I flipped the microphone switch off and slid my headphones down, and I waited for a familiar sound that I absolutely knew I would hear.


CHRIS: There it is. The phone ringing. It never fails. Every single time I finish up a show, the studio phone rings.


CHRIS: I already knew what the person on the other end of the line was going to say, word for word.


CHRIS: Hello. Thanks so much for calling 101.5 Radio Sunnyside, the voice of the people. My name is Christopher. How can I help you? VOICE ON THE PHONE: Haven't you heard? Radio is dead.


CHRIS: Just like clockwork, always the same voice, always the same message. “And was it true?” I thought to myself, as I was sitting there in the studio. Was radio as a form of communication really dead?


Community radio can give scientists access to places that you wouldn't even think was possible. Like someone's kitchen. Or their vehicle. Or your voice is with them when they're walking down a trail. Radio truly has a huge reach, especially in rural areas like this one where I'm from here on the Colorado Plateau, where often the only good form of community outreach is through the airwaves.

But let's head back to the beginning, back to when I first had this idea to do a science radio show. Back to when I realized the true importance and value of communicating science directly to the people and not just to other scientists. My name is Christopher Calvo, and I had at that time been a wildlife biologist, and I studied birds mostly here in the southwestern United States for 16 wonderful years.


CHRIS: That right there. That's the call of the common black hawk [1].


CHRIS: And that was the iconic southwestern willow flycatcher [2].


CHRIS: And finally that call there, that was from the yellow-billed cuckoo [3], one of my favorite birds. These are all birds that migrate to habitat that exists along rivers and creeks here in the low and high deserts of the Southwest. And most of the time, it was my job to find out where they were and how they were doing. I would help write proposals. I'd help shape protocols; I'd do the field work; I'd analyze data; I'd write the reports. I'd even train other scientists, and I honestly thought at that time that I was being the best scientist I could be.

But sometimes after work, when I'd be in these communities out having a beer and small-talking with locals, I would realize that so many folks don't even know what a yellow billed-cuckoo is. Or that they are an imperiled species. Or that the riparian habitat that they love out their back door is suffering dramatically from long-term drought and climate change. I was doing the science, sure, but turns out I was missing one of the most important skills that scientists can have. And that is communicating. Communicating what I'm doing. And communicating the importance of it to the public. And once I realized that, I set out to try and become a better science communicator. But at that time, I just didn't really know how. Well, thankfully, the answer came in an unlikely place later on that season when I was out late one night surveying for this bird right here.


CHRIS: That was the Mexican spotted owl [4], and it is an imperiled bird that lives here in the Southwest. And it was 1:00 a.m., and I was exhausted. I had walked so far in the woods and hadn't got a single owl detection. I’d just got back to my truck.


CHRIS: Weary and sleepy, I decided to turn on the radio, but my go-to radio station was out. So instead I spun the dial and I landed on a radio show unlike anything I had ever heard before.


CHRIS: It was a hardcore heavy metal show, a music genre that is rare to hear on the airwaves. And what made this show truly unique was the host. He went by the name DJ Heavy DK, and he was vivacious. He effortlessly created skits where he played each character carrying on a conversation with himself. He had humor, he had wit and depth; he was absolutely mesmerizing. I instantly felt awake, and the miles blurred by as I tuned into his every word. And as I sat there listening, I realized something really important in regard to my science communication conundrum. I could reach people through the radio.

Like I said, where I live and work is part of an extremely rural and vast area. The Colorado Plateau region covers roughly 150,000 square miles, and it crosses over four states. There are many sovereign nations within the Colorado Plateau as well, including the Pueblo Nations like the Acoma and the Dil’zhe’e and the White Mountain Apache. And the Havasupai and the Hopi, the Hualapai, the Southern Paiute, the Southern Ute, the Ute Mountain Ute, the Zuni, and, of course, the Diné Nation, whose lands alone cover an area the size of West Virginia. And of course, it’s home to an incredible number of national parks and national monuments. In fact, the only other place with more parks and monuments is Washington, DC. But their parks are often the size of a building, whereas our parks here on the Colorado Plateau, well, sometimes they’re the size of the entire state of Rhode Island. So yeah, radio is as vital a form of communication here as anything.

Many areas of the Colorado Plateau have absolutely no phone service, no Internet infrastructure. But radio, well, radio reaches all the far corners. And case in point, here I was out in the middle of nowhere, listening in to the radio and getting completely inspired. I wish the radio DJ could have known. So at the end of his show, DJ Heavy DK, he added that if any listeners out there wanted to have their own radio show and be a part of this community radio station, to send an e-mail in, and they’d get back to us. And wow, I sent an e-mail about my science show early that next morning. And within a couple of weeks, I was, thankfully, in the studio and talking science to the regional community and to those that would tune in online all over the world.

[OPENING MUSIC BY THA ‘YOTIES FROM THE SONG “RESTLESS NATIVES” AND NARRATION FOR “THIS IS THE COLORADO PLATEAU” RADIO SHOW, FADING OUT, VARIOUS SPEAKERS: This is science. This is culture. This is nature. This is community. This is the Colorado Plateau. Hosted by Christopher Calvo.]

CHRIS: And as with any good community radio station, the sky is absolutely the limit as far as content goes. I was able to do shows about regional science projects like the California Condor Recovery Plan [5] around Grand Canyon National Park, or how seismic activity from oil drilling operations was affecting the structural integrity of ancient ancestral Puebloan structures at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. I could do a show about literally anything. But I really loved doing my own interviews with astronomers, and laboratory technicians, and authors, and field biologists, and my personal favorite type of science communicator, teachers. Like right here with this great interview here I had with Dr. Tad Theimer, a biology professor at Northern Arizona University.

[SOUND CLIP OF TAD THEIMER SPEAKING WITH CHRIS: The other I think is important for a good teacher is to really do your homework. Know your stuff. And I think this comes from being an interpreter; kids will figure out real quickly if you don’t know what you’re talking about. They are a great, great way to find out that you have to know your stuff if you’re going to convince kids you know what you’re talking about. And that’s developing trust. And I think trust is so important in everything we do. In teaching. In science. In communicating science and bringing about real change. Trust is critical for that. If you want to inspire people to be learners themselves, you’ve got to convince them that that’s what you are. And not just convince them, you’ve got to be it. You have to be true. And so that becomes an important part of that. Building that trust. Being honest. And just working really hard to be the best you possibly can at what you’re trying to do.]

CHRIS: And sometimes I’d just show up to places and start recording, like I did here at the famous Pecos archaeological science conference that was happening just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona.

[SOUND CLIP OF CHRIS INTERVIEWING HANNAH ELLIOT: Please introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about your research. So my name is Hannah Elliott, and I am a summer 2018 intern at Petrified Forest National Park. And as part of the internship program, each one of us did an independent research project. And for my project, I chose to look at historic inscriptions that are located along the 35th parallel that runs through the park. And part of what I was looking at was looking into questions of identity and what these inscriptions could tell us about the people that had come through at one point or another and decided to leave their mark. And I found some pretty interesting things along with what was the priority of information that people decided to leave. How did they decide to express this and how was identity expressed and retained by some of these people that oftentimes were very far from home. And it was a really interesting project and I learned a lot and I really enjoyed doing it.]

CHRIS: Often I'd bring my microphone to broadcast community events. For instance, there was a panel session about the importance of the new Bears Ears National Monument and the management partnership with Indigenous leaders. And from that, here's artist and activist Ed Kabotie talking about his love for our region.

[SOUND CLIP OF ED KABOTIE TALKING: In my music, the band that you're going to hear tonight, we call ourselves the Yoties, which is short for coyotes, because we feel like we're howling for the people and the lands of the Colorado Plateau, the Colorado Plateau being, you know, a sacred landscape to not only my people, but many Indigenous Tribes of this area. And you know, when we think of the Colorado Plateau, we're thinking of a land of sacredness, a land of beauty, a land that many people experience the beauty with us in the national monuments and so forth.

And yet it's a land that's very highly exploited. I'd like to point out there's 500 standing rocks in these hemispheres, you know. There’s 500 open pit uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, you know. The only existing uranium mine in Arizona, you know, being the Canyon Mine, you know, and the proposed haul route, the only existing mill, you know, right next to the Ute Mountain Ute people just a few miles from here, you know. And this is something that all of us, I think, should be crying out for so like Lyle, I'm gonna just say kwakwha, thank you to all of you too, for making the effort to enrich yourself, educate yourself, and, you know, share in our struggle together for Mother Earth.]

CHRIS: And one of the best parts I have to say was being able to use my time slot in the studio to open the door for other creators who could use that space for their passions. Like for instance, the wonderful Southwestern forger and educator, Ashley Doyle, who did several shows on the plants of our region.

[SOUND CLIP OF ASHLEY DOYLE TALKING AND WALKING ON A GRAVEL PATH, WITH CRY OF A PINYON JAY [6], FADING OUT: Let's move on from that nice little field or pasture we were perusing mullein [7], and let's move deep into the Plateau region of the pinyon pine [8] forest.]

CHRIS: It was amazing being able to communicate science this way. And above all else, hearing from the people who I happened to reach. Well, that was one of the most powerful things I have ever experienced in my career as a scientist. I heard from a high school student who was inspired by the show, and she decided to become a citizen scientist. That was amazing. I would sometimes just hear from people like, for instance, an elder from Germany who contacted me, and they just wanted me to know that their big dream had always been to come to the Colorado Plateau and see Rainbow Bridge. But they never got to. But they loved to listen to the show.

And sometimes folks would contact me with questions, really great questions. And sometimes they just wanted to share memories. And sometimes they wanted to come on the show themselves. And every connection was one that came organically. There was no marketing, there was no advertisements, no anything, really. It was just a matter of putting it out there, of sitting down and creating something and setting it loose into the world over the airwaves. Look at this very moment right now, right this second. And thanks so much for listening, by the way. But here we are, you and I. So allow me to take this opportunity and say to you that you are important. What you do with your life is important. How do you communicate your story? That’s also important. Think about things that might be unconventional forms of communication. Sometimes those are the best way to go about it. If I hadn't took that step into community radio, there is no way that you would be listening to my story here today. Well, now it's your turn. Tell me your story. I'm listening.


CHRIS: Oh, but one other thing real quick before you get started recording. I was back at the studio and I just finished another science radio show and well, you guessed it, this happened again.


CHRIS: But this time, I finally had something to say back.


CHRIS: Well, hello. Appreciate you calling Radio Sunnyside. This is Christopher. And before you speak, I just have one thing I want to ask. You might think the radio is dead, but how come you keep tuning in every single week? Radio sure doesn't sound dead to me.


CHRIS: They hung up, and I put the phone down too. A reggae song was coming on over the speaker. I turned up the volume on the mixer and, smiling, I started working on some ideas for next week's show.


CHRIS: This is Christopher Calvo of the Southern Colorado Plateau inventory and Monitoring Network. I'd like to say thanks so much to the two great bands, Swamp Wolf and Tha ‘Yoties with Ed Kabotie for use of their incredible music. And thanks especially to you, the listeners.


[PODCAST CONCLUSION, WITH MUSIC: This has been Park Science Podcast. Catch up on more podcasts and articles at nps.gov/parkscience.] _____________________________________________________________________________________

Credits: Bird songs—U.S. Geological Survey; Music from Tha ‘Yoties and their songs, ”Yoties,” “Live Consciously,” “Restless Natives,” and “The River” used by permission of Ed Kabotie, © Ed Kabotie; Music from Swamp Wolf and the song “The Dogs of War” used by permission of Steve Kaufman, © Steve Kaufman. _____________________________________________________________________________________


About the author: Christopher Calvo is a biologist and science communicator with the National Park Service’s Southern Colorado Plateau Inventory and Monitoring Network.

[1] See https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Black_Hawk/

[2] See https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp/species/6749

[3] See https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp/species/3911

[4] See https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp/species/8196

[5] See https://www.fws.gov/program/california-condor-recovery

[6] See https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp/species/9420

[7] See https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=VETH

[8] See https://www.nps.gov/para/learn/nature/pinyon-pine.htm]

In vast, rural areas of the Southwest, where there’s no phone service or internet, radio rules. Science communicator Christopher Calvo, former host of “This Is the Colorado Plateau,” tells how community radio helped him share science over the airwaves. A production of Park Science magazine, Winter 2023 issue (December 29, 2023), https://www.nps.gov/subjects/parkscience.

1. Swept Away


[INTRODUCTION, WITH MUSIC]: Welcome to Park Science Podcast, a podcast of Park Science magazine that highlights milestones and contributions to science made by parks and programs of the National Park Service. Find our podcast series as well as the full Park Science magazine online at nps.gov/parkscience.

BROOKE: U.S. national parks with coastlines are on the front lines of climate change. They’re seeing the effects of sea level rise, storm surge, and coastal erosion firsthand. But science is helping our national parks meet these challenges. I’m Brooke Bauman, a Scientists in Parks intern with the NPS Coastal and Ocean Advisory & Support Team (COAST). I’m here with Dave Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina. For him, the park with the most coastal challenges in Eastern North Carolina is Cape Hatteras National Seashore. He recently published a study [1] [http://doi.org/10.34237/10089211] on predicting how the seashore’s shoreline will change.

Cape Hatteras is a big, sandy island, 75 miles long, just off the coast of North Carolina. Because it is a barrier island, it’s formed and reformed by waves constantly removing and depositing sand parallel to the shoreline. It has sandy beaches and dunes, which provide food and shelter for animals like sea turtles and shore birds. It also has a lot of private homes. Hallac says when sand erodes from the island or accretes—accumulates—it has an impact on those habitats and structures.

DAVE: As you can imagine on a large, sandy barrier island [2], having an incredible amount of erosion or accretion can really affect the amount of habitat that we have, but it can also affect the vulnerability of many of the structures that we have, or assets, everything from roadways to lighthouses to parking lots.

BROOKE: Think how often we see footage of houses under water or collapsing into the ocean after a storm. If you don’t live near the coast, you may think coastal erosion is caused by things like sea level rise or more frequent storms. But Hallac says it’s natural for sand to move along the coast on barrier islands like Cape Hatteras.

DAVE: Many of the challenges we have related to erosion, structures, and roads being threatened would be occurring without any sea level rise or climate change. And that’s because most barrier islands are dynamic landforms. Generally, the barrier islands in Eastern North Carolina here would be sustained through a process of frequent overwash and some transport of sand from the Atlantic-facing ocean across the island, which would build some island height but also in some cases shift the island westward.

BROOKE: How has that natural process of sand movement changed since people began building roads or living there?

DAVE: So that normal process of migration has been altered in many ways because for decades, we built large sand dunes that prevented that island overwash. Those sand dunes were required to protect a highway that extends more than 50 miles through the seashore. And then interspersed within the seashore we have a number of developed villages where there are beach homes and homes behind the dunes. Those homes also have had to be protected and the dunes have had to be maintained over the years to protect those private properties.

BROOKE: How else has coastal development affected the natural movement of sand?

DAVE: Because we have halted some of these processes, we have islands that are now eroding both from the Atlantic-facing side and from the sound side. And the islands are becoming smaller and smaller, and there is less habitat available for wildlife, there are fewer areas for people to recreate on, and other important structures that support society on the islands, whether they be roadways or waterlines, or powerlines, are increasingly threatened.

BROOKE: Okay. But climate change and sea level rise play a role here too, don’t they?

DAVE: As I said earlier, all those issues—erosion, island breaches—those have been happening for hundreds and hundreds of years, prior to some of the modern climate change that we are seeing on earth, and the sea level rise that’s coming from that. But what we do know is that sea level rise and climate change are probably exacerbating those coastal hazards, and that is likely to continue to become an increasingly difficult problem.

BROOKE: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—NOAA—has been monitoring sea level at Cape Hatteras since the late 1970s. NOAA scientists determined that sea level rose by one and a quarter feet from 1920 to 2020 [3]. But Hallac says sea level rise isn’t the only concern.

DAVE: NOAA is also expecting that we should have more damaging flooding. And so these are the types of flood events that you know sometimes you might hear to as king tides, but they’re just simple flood events that are caused by tide and storm surge increased water levels; they expect those types of events to increase in frequency on average by as much as 10 times over the frequency we see today. So when you combine just having a higher sea level in addition to having this large increase in the frequency of these damaging flood events, I think it’s a recipe for greatly accelerated erosion and further instability of the barrier islands.

BROOKE: In 2021, Hallac and a colleague, Michael Flynn, published a scientific study [1] in Shore and Beach Journal. The study evaluated how well an updated version of a shoreline change forecasting model worked at Cape Hatteras. The forecasting model uses something called the Digital Shoreline Analysis System [4], which was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

DAVE: So what we did was to look at a couple of decades of high-tide shoreline data. In other words, how far does the water line come up onto the beach at high tide on average, and we looked at that over multiple years. Not surprisingly, we found, in most areas of the seashore, a continuous trend of erosion. In other words, that high tide line was coming higher and higher up on the beach, and we were losing dry sand beach over time. We took multiple shoreline high-tide depictions and performed a statistical analysis.

BROOKE: Right, and you found that the rate of shoreline change was about 10 was 14 feet per year. What does that mean in real-world terms?

DAVE: We found that the shoreline would be perhaps within a neighborhood, it might be on the west side of a road, in other words, completely overtaking a road in a certain area or village, or it might be breaking in the middle of, the waves might be breaking in the middle of a parking lot. So that information is extremely helpful. Because, as you can imagine, in a place like Cape Hatteras Seashore, we have damages from storms, tropical storms, nor’easters, and hurricanes regularly. And we wanted to know, following these storms, does it make sense, if a parking lot is damaged, to invest in rebuilding that parking lot in the same location?

BROOKE: In light of this information, what did you end up doing?

DAVE: It gave us the opportunity to think differently, to find another location, a substitute location, for that parking where the investment would likely be able to be used and we could realize those benefits for at least a 20-year period. So that’s an example of how we used the work from that publication and how we’re still using the results from that publication to inform our planning and management decisions.


BROOKE: OK. So now we know a little bit more about how the sand on barrier islands moves naturally and what that means for the people, plants, and animals there. It’s obvious that the boundaries in a national park like Cape Hatteras are constantly shifting, unlike inland parks like Shenandoah or Yellowstone.

DAVE: So our eastern facing boundary at Cape Hatteras National Seashore along 75 miles of beach is actually the mean low tide line. In some cases of the park, the boundary is from the mean low tide up to the high tide line. And then, as that area, which is referred to as the foreshore, continues to migrate to the west, there are some circumstances now where that high tide line to low tide line is right next to or maybe essentially straddling a home that is on the beach. Because of that moving foreshore boundary, it is possible that there could be homes that were once built in a high and dry location behind the dunes that are now between the high tide line and the low tide line.”

BROOKE: With shorelines and park boundaries encroaching upon homes, that must create some challenging park management situations.

DAVE: We’ve actually had three collapse [5] since the beginning of the year 2022. But on a daily basis, pieces and parts of these homes are also falling off. Sometimes septic systems are exposed and also break apart. So this has created some really unique and difficult challenges for the park where we are of course trying to maintain pristine beaches that are available for our visitors to enjoy and also for wildlife to use.

BROOKE: I know that in the aftermath of collapsing homes, Cape Hatteras has led extensive clean-up efforts. To help remove particularly small pieces, the park even purchased a mechanical beach rake. There are a lot of concerns for wildlife. I understand the park also drafted a plan for what to do if more homes collapse, and park staff have also been working with the local communities. Can you tell us more about that?

DAVE: We have made some significant communication efforts to work with and encourage house owners in the area to do something to prevent the ongoing and potential future impacts to the seashore up to and including moving or removing their homes if feasible. So we work very closely with the Dare County Building Inspector and Planning Department, and they have kept us in the loop when it comes to the status of homes that may be at risk.

BROOKE: What do you do if you find a home that’s at risk of collapsing into the ocean?

DAVE: We would typically follow up with a communication in the form of a letter to the house owners if Dare County notified us that there was some type of a risk or instability of one of the structures in this area of the seashore and offer to work with and communicate with the house owner and to encourage them to do things to avoid a home collapse or any significant damage.

BROOKE: And how have homeowners responded?

DAVE: There have been several, I believe about a half dozen homeowners, who have looked at the situation and worked with us and with Dare County, and they’ve actually lifted their house up, put it on beams and on a truck, and moved it across the street.

BROOKE: Cape Hatteras has obviously been dealing with some really sticky issues. But as sea level continues to rise, more national parks may face issues like these. So, what advice do you have for other parks and public land managers in general?

DAVE: Yeah, the number one recommendation I have is don’t just focus on water levels, also focus on erosion. We have worked quite a bit with colleagues from Eastern Carolina University and others, and I’ve been here for eight years now, and I’ve realized that sea level rise is a very important factor; we need to be aware of it, we need to consider it, but before the sea level rises a foot and becomes a big issue, the ongoing erosion that occurs without sea level rise is a much bigger factor.

BROOKE: I imagine your scientific studies help a lot with that.

DAVE: So studying erosion and erosion transit, being able to forecast changes in the morphology and the dynamics of the barrier islands I think is a really important thing that is sometimes missed because we have such a large focus just on water levels themselves. And I think the second thing of course to focus on in terms of trying to predict future concerns really relates to storm surge. Storm surge modeling is really important. You can have very few impacts on a day-to-day basis, but once you have surge that is associated with certain storm events, and they might not even be hurricanes, those episodic stressors can really have a very large impact on coastal barrier island systems.

BROOKE: What kind of impacts are we talking about?

DAVE: They can result in large losses of sand, almost overnight; they can sometimes result in a large accretion of sand, but they can really have impacts on habitats, neighboring properties, and other assets that the parks use to support operations. So the more science that I think you can bring to bear, the better.

BROOKE: But don’t models like the one you used have limitations?

DAVE: When it comes to studying these things, and making these forecasts, that there’s also no substitute for experience and empirical observations. In some cases, we have some really good predictive models. They tend to sometimes just illuminate the obvious, the things that we already know are going to happen from watching our beaches day to day, month to month, year to year, and seeing the patterns and the trends. So really meshing those observations from our staff, from our community members, with scientific monitoring data and modeling I think really helps to inform our decisions.

BROOKE: OK. It looks like using the best available science, taking into consideration real-world conditions is key. And working with local communities. Are there any other things that public land managers in situations like yours should consider?

DAVE: Yeah, the one thing that I think when it comes to coastal hazards and sea level rise and climate change that we don’t talk about enough is the human dimension of managing these challenges. In some cases, the physical science side of it in terms of what’s happening with erosion and water levels and changes to national parks in coastal communities is the easy part. It can be easy to see what’s happening, make those projections, but finding ways to work with staff and nearby communities and park stakeholders and partners and come to consensus on the best way to manage those changes is the hard part.

BROOKE: Why is working with stakeholders harder than figuring out the science?

DAVE: And that’s because in many cases, there are communities and cultures that have thousands of years of history around these areas and have a really deep connection to the land. And those cultural connections are challenging and interesting to try to navigate through and dovetail with sometimes the harsh reality of the scientific predictions that we have. So I think that the area of social science and the human dimension of climate change and sea level rise management is something that’s really important for us as an organization to continue to build our capacity to study and understand.

BROOKE: That was Dave Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina and author of a recent study on predicting how the shoreline will change at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Thanks for listening.

[CONCLUSION, WITH MUSIC]: This has been Park Science Podcast. Catch up on more podcasts and articles at nps.gov/parkscience. ______________________________________________________


About the author: Brooke Bauman is a Scientists in Parks intern with the NPS Coastal and Ocean Advisory & Support Team (COAST). Her expertise is in environmental science, geospatial data, environmental journalism, and coastal restoration/resilience.

[1] See http://doi.org/10.34237/10089211

[2] See https://www.usgs.gov/geology-and-ecology-of-national-parks/geology-cape-hatteras-national-seashore

[3] See https://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/sltrends/sltrends_station.shtml?id=8652587

[4] See https://www.usgs.gov/centers/whcmsc/science/digital-shoreline-analysis-system-dsas

[5] See https://www.nps.gov/caha/learn/news/after-house-collapses-contractors-volunteers-national-park-service-clean-miles-of-beach-at-cape-hatteras-national-seashore.htm]

Barrier islands move constantly, but people build houses on them anyway. Cape Hatteras superintendent-scientist Dave Hallac explains why good data can only do so much. See the transcript for more about publications mentioned in the podcast. Hosted by Brooke Bauman. A production of Park Science magazine, Winter 2022 issue (December 30, 2022), https://www.nps.gov/subjects/parkscience.