Hawaii Volcanoes BioBlitz: Singing a Song of Earth

How many species can you spot in the large version of this painting of Hawaii’s biodiversity?

More than a thousand scientists, explorers, grade school students, and members of the public will swarm across the volcanoes, forests and shoreline of the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park next week, seeking to catalog every species they kind find. The ninth in a series of annual BioBlitzes hosted by the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society, the 2015 event is expected to be a celebration of biodiversity and Polynesian culture, a spiritual and scientific look at nature, and a teaching moment for all that there still is time to repair and appreciate our bonds with the Earth.

The concept of an annual BioBlitz in the run-up to the 2016 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. National Park Service was the brainchild of John Francis, National Geographic Vice President for Research, Conservation and Exploration. In this interview he talks about what’s so special about the BioBlitz in Hawaii and how everyone can use the experience, even by participating remotely, to find what the Earth means to them.


View of an 'i'iwi bird on akala or Hawaiian raspberry. Photograph by Chris Johns/National Geographic Creative.
View of an ‘i’iwi bird on akala or Hawaiian raspberry. Photograph by Chris Johns/National Geographic Creative.


David Braun: This is the ninth BioBlitz in the series in the run-up to next year’s National Park Service centennial. Is there anything special about this one?

John Francis: We were hoping to do a BioBlitz in a highly diverse tropical setting, and of course there is Hawaii and the Virgin Islands to choose from. We were pleased that it could be Hawaii. But as we started developing the BioBlitz, we realized that the great opportunity is not with the highly biodiverse aspect of Hawaii so much as the cultural message that is tied to the land. We’re learning about the way Hawaiians, and people in general, can be closely tied to the land in terms of their art, their life ways. So the special message I’m hoping to pull out of this ‘Blitz has everything to do with getting people in their daily lives to be closer to nature.

DB: Are Hawaiian cultural experts involved with the running of this BioBlitz?

In the course of all the learning opportunities at this year’s event there will be a tandem representation, with more conventional Western scientific approach to appreciating the land and biodiversity paired with the Polynesian way of knowing the Earth, which will be revealed in discussion. We had a moment in our planning sessions where we had a ceremony before our discussions with the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Cultural Anthropologist, Keola Awong, and she had us standing over Kilauea crater and listening to the wind. We watched the trees swaying and thought about the meanings of the sky and the earth and its processes such as the climate and water that impart this rich environment.

The Polynesian way of appreciating it is much more holistic and you are not putting things into boxes. What was really cool in our first discussions with the group was when Keola stopped us and said that when she first heard about the BioBlitz she wondered “What’s all this ‘blitzing’ about?” She awakened me to the contrariness in our typical scientific process when it comes to wanting to count and confine everything and control it all away from human emotion and engagement. The alternate way of knowing is much more holistic, where the emotions work alongside the observations and the process of people being of nature rather than as external observers of it is in the equation.

I found it to be excitingly “other” to look at the human and cultural elements of this event. Plus at this BioBlitz we combine the annual cultural event that is celebrated on the Big Island, at this park, explicitly gathering both culture and biodiversity at one event.


Traditional hula performed at the park’s 2013 Hawaiian Cultural Festival The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park BioBlitz will be part scientific endeavor, part cultural festival and part outdoor classroom, according to the park's website. NPS Photo / Jay Robinson.
Traditional hula performed at the park’s 2013 Hawaiian Cultural Festival . The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park BioBlitz will be part scientific endeavor, part cultural festival and part outdoor classroom, according to the park’s website. NPS Photo / Jay Robinson.


DB: Yet a purpose of the National Park Service/National Geographic Society BioBlitz over the years has been to involve people, focusing on education and introducing nature to children, helping understand that nature is also in their own backyards.

JF: That’s true. It is absolutely also about awakening people to imagine themselves more connected, and in our BioBlitzes we’ve included the arts and poetry. You will remember in Tucson we had some great dances by Native Americans. So it hasn’t been completely apart from this perspective. What’s different in Hawaii is that this is the first time we are deeply embedded within the community where it is primary to imagine yourself as integral to the natural system. The dancing and chants are a very visible part of the island when you come to it as a tourist, but I don’t think that many people realize just how closely tied that all is to the resplendent nature that people get to see as well. It includes the oceans and all the way up to the mountains of Mauna Kea.

DB: How many scientists are taking part in this BioBlitz?

We’re up to about 170, which is pretty good for a small island. We have 750 students signed up, and we have some very cool modules which include both Western scientists as well as Polynesian ways of seeing.

DB: Picking up on Keola’s point, why do we have a BioBlitz? What can be meaningfully achieved in 24 hours? We typically identify only hundreds of species out of what surely must be many thousands, tens of thousands of species that are actually in a park.

JF: In some cases the parks don’t have good records of species lists, especially for the insects and some of the other lesser-known species. In the bayous of Louisiana we added a huge number of species to the park list. And there have been a couple of cases when we have found new species, certainly on the list of species for the park. But it is more of an engagement exercise, for the communities surrounding the park, but perhaps even more importantly, with the scientists who could do more research in the park, and in the way the parks can tie to the existing communities and knowledge.


An endemic Kamehameha butterfly lands on an ‘ama‘u fern frond in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park NPS Photo / Jay Robinson
An endemic Kamehameha butterfly lands on an ‘ama‘u fern frond in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park
NPS Photo / Jay Robinson


DB: The nine BioBlitzes in this series, including this one, will culminate in a special tenth BioBlitz next year. There’s something special about the grand finale BioBlitz, right?

JF: I started this ten-year series of BioBlitzes anticipating that at the tenth year we would be at the centennial of the founding of the National Park Service. So I am really delighted that we have been able to proceed with this over the ten years. But yes, the tenth BioBlitz, in 2016, is when we get to celebrate across the park system. We will headquarter the BioBlitz activities in Washington, D.C. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, which works with the White House, will receive the BioBlitz flag at the closing of the 2015 bioblitz, this year in Hawaii.

This is an enthusiastic stamp of approval by our country’s leadership. And already some 85 parks have signed up to do ‘Blitzes as part of the centennial activities. Every park in the system is supposed to be doing something special for the 2016 anniversary, and a BioBlitz is an easy way to bring community in and celebrate what’s there.


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Painting of Hawaii’s dramatic landscape and tropical biodiversity by John Dawson/National Geographic Creative.


DB: You became an honorary park ranger at the end of last year’s BioBlitz. What was that about?

John Francis being named an Honorary Park Ranger, 2014. NPS photo.
John Francis being named an Honorary Park Ranger, 2014. NPS photo.

JF: (Laughs) I don’t know for sure. It was nice to be recognized as an honorary ranger. I got a special plaque with a very hefty bronze ranger hat. I think it was for working very closely with the Park Service to build up this idea, so I’m grateful that the Service and current director Jon Jarvis support it so enthusiastically. It was a nice gesture, and of course the effort has been one of hundreds of people carrying this initiative, so I can’t take a lot of credit.

DB: As we move through the Centennial, and when the BioBlitzes will be behind us, and looking back on all the work you have done over many years, where do you see we stand with regard to the parks? What threshold are we on with a hundred years of parks behind us and, hopefully, a hundred years ahead of us? What do you see and what do you hope for the future of the parks?

JF: One of the big challenges for me, and I think for everyone who thinks about how parks work on the planet, is the fact that we have huge environmental changes unfolding. The parks themselves, which house wonderful cultural icons but also biological treasures, are being affected by landscape-wide changes. So where we might have protected the Everglades for a variety of wonderful species and habitats, to find them underwater because of the impact of climate change in a matter of decades, is to wonder what good is the park. The same is true for Glacier National Park, where you have melting glaciers and whole ecosystems just marching off the top of the peaks.

You could put a fence around the parks, but you’re not going to be able to protect what they stand for if you don’t think about the whole fabric of the planet. So corridors are important, even in people’s backyards.

The park system represents a set of ideals for what we should value, and that includes the natural world. My hope is that through the BioBlitz we have awakened people to look after their local parks, their backyards, their behavior, to make sure that the living fabric of the planet effectively does not go underwater on our watch.

John Francis gives a thumbs up at the Golden Gate BioBlitz (2014). Photograph tweeted by National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell.
John Francis gives a thumbs up at the Golden Gate BioBlitz (2014). Photograph tweeted by National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell.

DB: Is it time to see the world as one big integrated park?

JF: I gave a talk at the recent Parks for Science congress that basically said that the world is a park. I was looking at the basic problem that there aren’t boundaries to carbon dioxide pollution, global warming, the impacts of our consumption on our planet, and the way that land is being eaten up by say soybean planting, cattle farming, huge consumption in fisheries. We have to be thinking of our actions now on a global scale if we’re going to be looking after things. So the BioBlitz helps to awaken that perception that we are all stewards, and we need to know what’s there in order to safeguard it.

DB: What bright spots do you see to encourage people, the youngsters who will take part in the Hawaii BioBlitz? What encourages them to keep going and make the effort to help save the planet?

JF: At National Geographic we are farmers, in a way. We plant seeds. We’re planting ideas and opportunities for the next generations. We’ve seen people grow through our support. In this case, we had more than 8,000 young people participating in the San Francisco BioBlitz, and I fully believe that a very large number of those kids are building on that experience.

We have our Great Nature Project which allows people around the world to upload photographs of nature and become citizen scientists. So when you talk about bright spots, one of the big ones is that we all can easily become observers of nature and provide our observations for validation and inclusion, not just on a park species list but globally, though iNaturalist. That will allow people to really contribute around the world observations that are useful. The whole citizen science arena and being able to awaken that potential is mind boggling and wonderful.

I like to think that with the BioBlitz and with the global Great Nature Project we can awaken people, get them to think what’s their own relationship with the land, how it is that they can go outside on a nice day, take a deep breath of good air and realize how precious is the planet and all its wonderful plants and animals. Where people need to be nowadays is to ask themselves what’s their song of the earth.
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12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn