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Fletcher, Chip
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Fletcher, Chip

Mapping the future of Pacific Island shorelines

Charles “Chip” Fletcher, Ph.D., is the associate dean for academic affairs and professor of geology and geophysics at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, University of Hawaii at Manoa. Supported by the NOAA Sea Grant program through Hawaii Sea Grant, he conducts research on global climate change impacts among Pacific Island communities, natural history of reefs and beaches, coastal hazards, and vulnerability to sea-level rise. Fletcher is also the author of Living on the Shores of Hawaiʻi: Natural Hazards, the Environment, and our Communities published by University of Hawaii Press. In December 2010, he was honored with the Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Award for his climate adaptation work and his ability to communicate his findings to policy makers and the public. 

Why does your research matter?

My research includes mapping shoreline changes and determining rates of coastal erosion and accretion in high detail. This is very useful for local planners and other decision makers. For instance, by knowing the rate of erosion on a parcel by parcel basis, construction set-backs can be scaled to the rate of shoreline change, and can form the foundation for adding an estimate of safety related to sea-level rise and other types of marine hazards. Another area of research is to provide assessments of risk and vulnerability to sea-level rise to local authorities. I use highly resolved digital elevation models to identify the intersection of low elevations, wave run-up, rising sea level, vulnerable ecosystems and infrastructure, and groundwater rise. These assessments allow for better planning and conservation activities.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I enjoy teaching, public speaking, and watching eyes light up when someone grasps a scientific insight. I especially enjoy writing about what I do.

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?

I used to do a lot of field work; I spent many years drilling the reefs of Hawaii to interpret the natural history of coral ecosystems and the geologic record of sea-level change they contain. This involved lots of boat work, SCUBA diving, and adventures with graduate students on remote coasts of Hawaii. But these days I do less field work. Most days I drive my computer around the office.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

I would invent a cheap small hand-launched airplane that could map the land surface and the shallow seafloor in extremely high detail using LiDAR, multi- and hyper-spectral bands, and photography that also had perfect position control. This way the datasets to map shoreline change, sea-level rise vulnerability, and other land cover issues would be cheap, easily and often updatable, and could be used to detect change and provide estimates of risk based on solid observations.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

As a kid I was always attracted to outcrops of rocks in the woods – not the trees or animals. It was the rocks that interested me.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

I enjoy teaching, public speaking, and watching eyes light up when someone grasps a scientific insight."

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

And how about a personal favorite book?

The Social Animal by David Brooks

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

Actually, I’m surprised at the use of my data by lawyers and in the context of legal decision making.

Do you have an outside hobby?

My hobby is distance swimming in the ocean.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I’d probably be a potter. In college I loved to throw pots and the idea of living on a farm that served as a studio with a kiln has always appealed.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

John Wesley Powell, who started the U.S. Geological Survey, achieved heroic things. The first man down the Grand Canyon, a civil war veteran, and a master in the hallways of Congress, he was a force of nature.

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