Ask Hawaii climate scientists what they’d do with an extra $3 million in federal funding, and you’ll get a long list of answers.

They say they’d hire more researchers to study eroding coasts, rising sea levels and imperiled coral reefs. They’d study how changing bird and mosquito habitats could affect avian-borne diseases.

“One important thing for us to focus on is water resources,” said Chip Fletcher, the associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Hawaii‘s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. “Basically, how will climate change affect the generation of rainwater?”

Scientists at UH Manoa, UH Hilo and the University of Guam could start crossing things off their million-dollar bucket list — if debt negotiations in Congress go the way they hope. The proposed Pacific Islands Climate Science Center is another example of a Hawaii program facing an uncertain future as Congress tries to slim down the federal deficit.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of the Interior tapped the three schools to spearhead the new center — one of eight across the country that will provide climate information to federal, state and local government agencies. The consortiums are part of the department’s National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center, run by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Fletcher, who helped craft UH’s proposal for the program, said it was a boon for Hawaii. In his opinion, the Pacific Islands’ small populations belied their environmental importance.

“So often we are overlooked,” he said. “When you look at the geography from Hawaii to Palau, we are a couple times larger than the mainland U.S. But if you look at population, we aren’t even as big as some of the larger cities.”

But the researchers are waiting on Congress to approve next year’s federal budget. And that decision is tied up in the choices of the super committee, the bipartisan group tasked with cutting at least $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit.

How likely is it that UH will see money for the center? Kevin Hamilton, one of the project’s leaders and the director of the International Pacific Research Center at UH, sounded confident — and a little cautious.

“It seems that this is very high priority, right up to the Secretary of Interior,” he said. “But we’ll have to wait until they have an official full-year budget.”

Loyal Mehrhoff, the Climate Science Center’s interim director, said the price tag is still up in the air. A UH press release pegged the price at more than $3 million over the next five years.

That money could pay for 10 to 20 new graduate and post-doctoral researchers each year, Fletcher estimated, plus a number of federal employees. Mehrhoff said the center also plans to award an additional $1.5 million in research grants each year.

Mehrhoff said researchers right now have a better picture of climate change at the global level, rather than the local one.

“It’s really hard to see what’s going to happen in Hawaii,” he said. With the new center, researchers will “begin to see what’s going to happen on, say, the west side of Oahu, or the west side of the Big Island,” he said.

That’s a level of detail Mehrhoff says will help government agencies, schools and non-profits better prepare for changes in the environment. Mehrhoff is also a field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu.

The center plans to share its work with the Pacific Islands Climate Change Cooperative, part of a body includes government agencies, schools and non-profits.

Fletcher said the research is especially important for Hawaii. The state’s position in the middle of the Pacific makes it different from other states, he said.

“We are completely dependent on external resources, yet we are also so tied to the ocean and tied to our land,” he said.

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About the Author

  • Nick Castele
    Nick Castele is a Civil Beat intern and senior journalism student at Northwestern University's Medill School in Evanston, Ill. He is a former editor-in-chief of North by Northwestern, recently named by the Society of Professional Journalists as the nation's best independent online student publication. A native of Northeast Ohio, Nick has worked as a reporting intern at Cleveland Magazine and WCPN public radio, the city's NPR news station. Follow him on Twitter @NickCastele.

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