UH helps improve access to ocean data for indigenous coastal communities


Indigenous coastal communities have relied on ocean resources for over millennia, but climate change is having a profound impact on these communities by creating a more unpredictable ocean.

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

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

“Increased access to ocean data is essential for the security and livelihoods of coastal communities,” said Melissa Iwamoto, director of the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System and co-principal of the project. “We are excited about how this project will help us rapidly advance our goals to meet the needs of our users through collaboration with new and existing partners in all disciplines and geographies. “

The goal of the project is to put oceanographic data into the hands of indigenous communities in a way that takes advantage of existing, less expensive wave buoy technology and enables community-led sustainable buoy management. The team aims to revolutionize the status quo by providing new tools and connections that deliver critical security information at the 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 cargo,” said Melissa Iwamoto, director of Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System and co-principal of the NSF. project. “Our partners and users are asking for more information about the ocean to enhance safety and improve decision making, and many also want more autonomy in instrumentation maintenance.”

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The partners will work collectively to develop solutions to overcome the existing barriers of observational technologies that are too expensive to purchase and maintain when conducted in isolation. They include three regional systems of the US Integrated Ocean Observing System, which includes the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System; Sofar Ocean, a low cost buoy and sensor company; and indigenous village partners in the Marshall Islands and American Samoa through the Marshall Islands Conservation Society and American Samoa National Park; the Quiluete Tribe and the Quinault Indian Nation on the Washington State Coast; and 11 whaling villages in the Arctic.

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In the initial phase of the project, partners will work to assess the needs of coastal communities and determine how Sofar’s low-cost wave buoy and smart mooring technologies can meet those needs. Working together, they will develop community-based stewardship programs that can maintain the buoys, using the strengths of regional systems to deliver data to remote communities in a way that works for them.

The collaboration embraces new technologies at lower cost and uses the power of local ownership to sustain ocean observations that are essential to serving the blue economy around the world. Indigenous communities in turn will provide feedback on the usefulness of the technologies, as well as commentary 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.

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

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


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