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Armed With a Silver Sword

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 12/13/2012 More stories >>

Dr. Krushelnycky collecting data from his alpine desert “lab.”

Dr. Krushelnycky collecting data from his alpine desert “lab.”

Paul Krushelnycky is doing his part to battle climate change, using perhaps the most important weapon available— knowledge. The researcher in the Department of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences is studying the declining population of silverswords (Argyroxyphium sandwicense macrocephalum) on Haleakala to discover whether, as his previous data suggest, their disappearance is related to climate change. His is one of five projects associated with and funded by the newly established Pacific Islands Climate Science Center, one of eight such centers throughout the country.

Not much survives on the upper slopes of Haleakala, but much of what does live there is dependent on the silversword, including several species of endemic insects. It thus plays a critical ecological role in its alpine desert environment. This native plant is also one of the most striking and rare species in the Islands (it only lives on these slopes) and as such is a great attraction to the million-plus visitors to Haleakala National Park.

Beyond that, it’s an indicator of what’s happening throughout the world as plants and animals are impacted by higher temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. As Dr. Krushelnycky points out, when temperatures rise, populations of high-elevation species that thrive in the cold move ever upwards in search of lower temperatures, and “species that already occupy summits may literally have nowhere to go.” He further warns that “unless climate trends on the mountain reverse course, the future outlook for the Haleakala silversword looks bleak.”

But Dr. Krushelnycky is partnering with Lloyd Loope of the USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, UH’s Thomas Giambelluca and Donald Drake, and Haleakala National Park’s Stephen Anderson and Matt Brown to try to change that. As part of their three-year project they’ll not only track and monitor the remaining populations; they’ll conduct droughttolerance tests of silversword seedlings to figure out which can survive on less water, and why. This information will help with developing restoration strategies.

And they’ll educate all those visitors about climate change and the many effects it has, even on places as remote as the top of a dormant volcano. Because only by understanding the advancing problem can we start to take action to reverse it.