Say Aloha to Our Pu`u Maka`ala Field Site!

February 2018

This April, the NEON Construction team will break ground on the last of the NEON field sites. Located in the Pu`u Maka`ala Natural Area Reserve (PUUM) in Hawaii, the site is expected to be fully operational by the fall of 2018.

Construction of the Hawaii field site has been a long time coming. The permitting team has worked closely with local community and scientific groups to select a site that would not disrupt endangered species, culturally important areas and activities, or ongoing research and preservation programs. They also had to get through an extensive environmental permitting process.

Pu`u Maka`ala, located on the eastern side of Hawaii’s “Big Island,” is a Natural Area Reserve (NAR) managed by the Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW). More than 18,000 acres in size, the NAR is home to a rainforest with many native species, some of them endangered.

The new terrestrial field site is the only site in the “Pacific Tropical” Domain (D20). Once the site is fully operational, field teams will collect the standard suite of terrestrial field site data including atmospheric measurements, soil measurements and observational sampling data.

The NEON project team evaluated several other sites in Hawaii before settling on Pu`u Maka`ala. Site selection was conducted in cooperation with local stakeholders, including the Hawaii DOFAW and local scientists and experts of the NARS Commission.  To get permitted, the site went through a rigorous environmental assessment, involving numerous state, federal and local community groups including the Three Mountain Alliance (TMA). TMA is a partnership of organizations involved in preservation of Hawaii’s native ecosystems and responsible management of land and resources on the island. The team wanted to ensure that the construction and operation of the NEON flux tower and sampling plots would not impact endangered species or impose on local hunting traditions or culturally sensitive areas. The PUUM tower and instrument hut will be located in an area of the NAR designated as “previously disturbed” to minimize impact on pristine areas of the forest.

In addition to supporting the overall goals of the NEON project, data collected from the PUUM field site will be invaluable for several local preservation and research projects. The Pu`u Maka`ala NAR includes native koa and `ōhi`a forests. `Ōhi`a forests, which make up nearly 80% of Hawaii’s native forest land, have been struck in recent years by a fungal disease known as Rapid `Ōhi`a Death (ROD). While it has not yet made major inroads into the Pu`u Maka`ala NAR, the NEON field site will provide data to help researchers who are monitoring the spread of ROD across the island.

NEON data will also be used by the `Alalā Project, a partnership between the Hawaii DOFAW and several other preservation groups seeking to restore Hawaii’s only native crow species to the wild. Terrestrial organismal sampling on the site will provide monitoring data for other threatened and endangered species as well, including the `i`iwi (a threatened honey creeper), the `io (a native Hawaiian hawk) and the nēnē (a native Hawaiian goose). The NEON project team is discussing the possibility of adding tracking antennas to the NEON tower to support radio monitoring programs for Hawaii DOFAW’s native bird monitoring program. Mosquito data from the NEON site will also help local researchers track disease vectors that may impact native avian species.

Due to the unique mix of soil conditions, flora and fauna on the island, researchers at PUUM will need to make a number of modifications to the sampling and measurement protocols used at most other NEON field sites. 

  • Because the island is volcanic and soil depths average just 4 inches, soil measurement methods have been modified for the site.
  • Field sampling schedules have been modified to minimize traffic through ecologically sensitive areas and accommodate Hawaii’s year-round growing season.
  • Small mammal sampling has been eliminated, as Hawaii has only one native terrestrial mammal (the Hawaiian Hoary Bat), an endangered species which is already being monitored by other research programs. Tick sampling has also been eliminated.
  • Tree tagging methods have been modified to avoid creating entry points for ROD in `ōhi`a trees.

Once the field site becomes fully operational, its data will support a broad range of local research programs and provide new insights into the ecology of native species in Hawaii.

Data from the PUUM field site, like all NEON data, will be freely available through the NEON data portal. The team hopes to see NEON field sampling methods replicated by local groups across all of Hawaii’s islands. Kathy Kirby, the NEON Deputy Project Manager, says, “There is no other place on earth that shares the unique mix of plant and animal species that we see in Hawaii. It’s exciting to have data collected from such a rare ecosystem.”

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