Hawaii-ecosystem researcher Peter Vitousek wins Japan Prize
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
A Hawai'i-born Stanford professor whose extensive research of Hawaiian ecosystems has led to breakthrough understandings of the ways in which agriculture and other human activity affect the environment has been awarded the Japan Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in science.
In announcing the award — which comes with a 50 million yen (roughly $550,000) cash prize — the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan lauded former Honolulu resident Peter Vitousek's "extraordinary achievements in developing the biogeochemical field of research and in investigation of scientific measures for solving today's most pressing global environmental issues."
Vitousek, 61, will travel to Japan in April to receive the award in the presence of Emperor Akihito.
Vitousek said he was surprised and honored by the recognition.
"It's a field that is really interested in understanding how the world works," he said. "Why they would single me out of the rest when there are quite a few productive scientists working in the field, I don't know."
Vitousek's colleagues were less surprised.
"They could not have chosen a better person," Stanford biology department chair Robert Simoni said in a released issued by the university. "Peter's work has had a very big impact over 40 years of research, from basic research on nitrogen cycles in the evolving ecology of forest systems in Hawai'i to the application of that work in understanding the role of human activity, including agriculture, in global nitrogen cycles. The work is fundamental to any discussion of mitigation of human impact on our environment."
Vitousek is the son of retired Family Court Judge Betty Vitousek and attorney Roy Vitousek Jr., and grandson of former speaker of the Territorial House Roy Vitousek. Peter Vitousek grew up in Honolulu but spent part of each year with his family in his father's native Kona. He attented Punahou for two years and graduated from Hawai'i Preparatory Academy on the Big Island.
Though an avid hiker and nature lover in his youth, Vitousek did not initially pursue a career in biological or environmental sciences. At Amherst College (Mass.), he studied and eventually earned a degree in political science. It was at Amherst, however, that Vitousek also read the work of pioneering ecologist Charles Elton, whose book "The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants" sparked in Vitousek what has become a career-long passion to understand the ways in which human activity influences the natural world.
Vitousek would go on to earn a doctorate in biological sciences at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He joined the faculty at Stanford University after stops at Indiana University and the University of North Carolina.
Vitousek continues to spend a few months a year in Hawai'i, conducting research in ecosystems at Volcanoes National Park and other sites.
Vitousek's research into biogeochemical cycles, which included extensive study of Hawaiian ecosystems, yielded groundbreaking knowledge of how human activity such as agriculture can negatively impact fragile ecosystems. Often cited has been his study of how increased levels of reactive nitrogen due to the use of fertilizers have disrupted forest and ocean ecosystems.
In 2001, Time Magazine recognized Vitousek in its list of "America's Best Scientists."
Vitousek's work has proven particularly relevant to contemporary efforts to promote sustainability.
"It's a matter of understanding how the world is changed by our activities and perhaps getting the impetus to reduce our footprint," Vitousek said. "The things I work on are clearly linked to agriculture, but it's not a matter of not doing it (but being) more efficient so we can use less to get the same food production."
Vitousek said his work is informed by a growing appreciation for the sustainable agricultural systems employed by ancient Hawaiians, who were able to produce food in an efficient, sustainable manner.
Indeed, the traditional Hawaiian systems of land distribution and agricultural organization — including the large crescent tracts, ahupua'a, that ran from mountain to ocean and provided ample water for each sub-community's agricultural efforts — has been lauded by many in the modern sustainability movement as a model of productive yet responsible human interaction with the natural environment.
Vitousek says appreciation for what Native Hawaiians were able to accomplish is a "fairly recent" development, one that has come to brighter light as estimates of ancient Hawaiian populations have been adjusted upward.
"If it was just a matter of a few thousand people being able to sustain their food production, it would be interesting but not necessarily relevant," he said. "But these were huge populations that were able to be self-sustaining over a long period of time, and that is something we can learn from."
Vitousek attributed the growing recognition of his field to a concordantly growing recognition of its immediate relevance.
He said that while high-profile issues such as climate control are getting much-needed public and political attention — "which is appropriate," he said — the warnings they sound are based on models and projections of a distant future.
"What we (study) is what we're doing now," he said. "The amount of relative nitrogen has more than doubled as a result of human activity. This is not a projection; we can see it. This is now."