Early in October Hurricane Walaka struck the Hawaii island region. The Cat 5 hurricane was one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever strike the area, though it thankfully did relatively little damage to the islands as it missed any major centers of population.
However, satellite imagery of the Hawaiian islands after the hurricane reveals that Walaka made an entire island disappear under the ocean.
An Island Disappears…
Global News reports that East Island, located in the French Frigate Shoals, disappeared underwater after the hurricane. The French Frigate Shoals is a large atoll northwest of the main islands of Hawaii, and the region was battered by Walaka as it passed through. According to officials, the area sustained heavy damage from the storm, not only has East Island disappeared under water, another island – Tern Island – saw major damage and was significantly altered. East Island was approximately 0.8 kilometers (half a mile) long and 400 feet wide, and it was the second largest island located within the atoll. A US Coast Guard station was located on the island until 1952.
Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument said in a recent statement that East Island and Tern Island are both critical nesting grounds for endangered/threatened species like the monk seals and green sea turtles. The Green sea turtle is found in the waters around Hawaii and at other tropical areas of the globe, and it is endangered according to the IUCN. The Hawaiian monk seals are a species of seal that number only around 1400 individuals. Seven researchers studying the island’s species were evacuated early in the month as the storm approached the atoll.
Chip Fletcher, Earth Sciences professor at University of Hawaii, was involved in researching the island. According to The Guardian, Fletcher and colleagues would capture footage of the island for analysis using drones and take samples of coral and sand. The team’s goal was to gain a better understanding of the island’s age and how it and other islands are affected by climate change. Fletcher recalls being somewhat in disbelief that the island was gone, noting that the island has managed to exist for around two thousand years, so for it to suddenly disappear right now is a stroke of bad luck for the research team.
Fletcher said to The Guardian that while it is extremely disappointing to see the island disappear, on the other hand it is a learning opportunity, a realization that islands like East Island are more vulnerable than researchers think. Fletcher expanded:
I thought the island would be around for a decade or two longer, but it’s far more fragile than I appreciated. The top, middle and bottom of it has gone… The loss is a huge blow. Little did we know it could disappear so quickly.
…And More Are Likely To Follow
Small islands in atolls are always at risk of being wiped off the map by a strong storm or hurricane, if the conditions have aligned just right. However, scientists worry that this is becoming much more common due to the effects of climate change. Climate change is making the oceans warmer, which in turn makes storms more powerful. Powerful hurricanes are traditionally rare around the Hawaiian islands, thanks to a combination of strong upper level wind-shears and a nearby region of cold water that together act as a storm shield.
Despite this, evidence seems to suggest that mid-Pacific hurricanes are trending northward, bringing them into the regions where atolls like the French Frigate Shoals are found. Not only are more frequent storms and hurricanes threatening islands and atolls like East Island, rising sea levels are also threatening to swallow up many low lying islands, as evidenced by the disappearance of several chunks of land in the Pacific during the past few years. In 2016, five islands in the Pacific, part of the Solomon Islands archipelago, disappeared beneath the waves due to rising sea levels. November of last year also saw eight islands in Micronesia, such as the island Nahlapenlohd where a famous battle between two rival Micronesian kingdoms took place, disappear due to sea level rise.
The senior official for the Hawaii movement at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Randy Kosaki, said the disappearance of East Island was evidence of the reality of climate change, adding that “it’s not a hoax propagated in China as some folks have said.”
Endangered Species Depend On Islands
The French Frigate Shoals are located within the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument. This monument received an expansion by the Obama administration in 2016, making it one of the largest marine reserves in the entire world. It covers some 2170 kilometers (1350 miles) of shoals, seamounts and coral islands, which are all host to a wide variety of species only found in the Hawaiian islands.
The disappearance of East Island means that the species which used it as a home or a stop-over point, like the Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles, will have an even more difficult time surviving a changing climate. Conservation biologist with the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Charles Littnan, explained to Honolulu Civil Beat that around one-seventh of the world’s Hawaiian monk seals were born on East Island. Around 16% of the entire seal species lives within the French Frigate Shoals, and some 30% of that population had pups on East Island, which made the island a major breeding ground.
According to Civil Beat, NOAA Papahānaumokuākea said that they are only “at the beginning of what does this mean”. So the bigger questions – What are the contributing factors to the event? How can we reduce the chances of islands being destroyed? How often will it happen? – are still unanswered. It’s also unclear if East Island is gone permanently or if it may one day reemerge from the ocean. However, even if East Island does reemerge, it would take years for the island to revegetate and become capable of once more sustaining the species that have utilized it. The corals surrounding it would also take many years to return.
As for the animals that lived on/around East Island, Littnan says that monk seals are able to survive some tough storms, surviving disappearances of habitat in the past. Yet it’s unclear how severe the effects on the East Island population will be until the researchers return next year. Littnan said that animals can redistribute themselves, but only to a point.
“Species are resilient up to a point. But there could be a point in the future where that resilience isn’t enough anymore,” said Littnan.