A remote Hawaiian island disappeared this month after Hurricane Walaka, a powerful Pacific hurricane, blew through the archipelago.
East Island was the second largest island of the French Frigate Shoals, the largest atoll in the northernmost part of Hawaii—roughly 550 miles from Honolulu, Oahu. The 11-acre island was an ecological treasure; a nursery for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and nesting ground for 96 percent of Hawaii’s green sea turtles.
East Island suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Walaka, and was submerged by a storm surge that dispersed its sands onto the surrounding reef. As first reported by Honolulu Civil Beat on Tuesday, remarkable satellite images from the US Fish and Wildlife Service show that East Island is almost entirely underwater.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suspects that 19 percent of green sea turtle nests on East Island that had yet to hatch were destroyed by Hurricane Walaka, reported The Huffington Post.
State and federal officials haven’t conducted a damage assessment, but a marine debris team “was already set to go up later this week, and could provide some preliminary observations,” reported Honolulu Civil Beat.
Spokespeople for the US Fish and Wildlife Service weren’t immediately available to respond to a request for comment.
“The probability of occurrences like this goes up with climate change.”
In early October, Hurricane Walaka neared East Island as a Category 3, eventually weakening into a tropical storm. A hurricane watch was issued on October 2 for Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a federally protected ocean habitat that encompassed East Island. On October 4, seven researchers studying monk seals and green sea turtles on the French Frigate Shoals were evacuated to Honolulu.
“I had a holy shit moment, thinking ‘Oh my God, it’s gone,’” Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii climate scientist, told Honolulu Civil Beat. “It’s one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled.”
Fletcher visited East Island in July and predicted it would take decades—not mere months—to succumb to rising sea levels.
On Facebook, Fletcher wrote:
There has been a silent tragedy at Lalo - French Frigate Shoals.
In the words of biologist Carl Meyer, “This could have very serious implications for the seals, turtles and birds. East Island was THE nesting beach for most of Hawaii's green sea turtles. [French Frigate Shoals] seals are a significant component of the overall monk seal population. It wouldn't surprise me if this storm killed this year's cohort of pups and some of the adults.”
Researchers can only speculate about the long-term consequences of the island’s sudden disappearance. But the seals and turtles in the French Frigate Shoals had probably already migrated elsewhere before Hurricane Walaka hit, Charles Littnan, director of NOAA’s protected species division, told Honolulu Civil Beat.
Only 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals remain anywhere on Earth, and the largely uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are home to most of them. Roughly 30 percent of pups born to mothers in French Frigate Shoals are born at East Island. The species is the most endangered pinniped in US waters, and already faces habitat loss due to rising sea levels.
“This is not surprising when you consider the bad luck of a hurricane going into that vicinity and sea level rise already sort of deemed the stressor in the background for these ecosystems,” Fletcher told Honolulu Civil Beat. “The probability of occurrences like this goes up with climate change.”
Global sea level rise is an imminent threat of climate change. Island nations are disproportionately at risk, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Extreme weather such as powerful hurricanes are also expected to worsen, and become more frequent, due to climate change.
“This event is confronting us with what the future could look like,” Littnan told The Huffington Post.
Tern Island, the largest among the French Frigate Shoals, has been sinking beneath the sea for years. To the east of Tern, Whale-Skate Island became fully submerged due to erosion by the 1990s and has never reappeared. And now, East Island.