If you aren’t a researcher studying the threatened green sea turtle, endangered monk seals or the albatross, chances are you’ve probably never heard of East Island.
For centuries, the islet peeked out from the turquoise and azure waters of the Pacific Ocean about 550 miles northwest of Honolulu in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The 11-acre patch of sand and loose gravel was often frequented by sea turtles, monk seals and albatrosses, which returned there year after year to nest and raise their young, safe from human threats.
But the next time these animals try to come back to their haven, it probably won’t be there. In early October, East Island was decimated by Hurricane Walaka — one of the most intense storms ever recorded in the Pacific Ocean — and effectively wiped off the map overnight.
“I was absolutely shocked,” Randy Kosaki, NOAA’s deputy superintendent of research and field operations for the monument, told The Washington Post. Kosaki said scientists first learned of the island’s near total destruction on Friday when they saw a satellite image taken Oct. 18.
East Island was the second-largest islet — roughly half a mile long and 400 feet wide — in the French Frigate Shoals, a remote atoll in the northwestern Hawaiian islands. Believed to have formed about 2,000 years ago, it hosted a U.S. Coast Guard radio station from 1944 to 1952.
Now, the area once occupied by the boomerang-shaped stretch of white sand covered in sparse vegetation is nothing but water. Two small slivers of sand are the only evidence that East Island even existed at all.
Kosaki said researchers have long known that low-lying islets, such as East Island, would gradually be swallowed by rising sea levels, but had expected the process to happen slowly over the next 100 years.
“I had never imagined that we would lose major islands overnight in October 2018,” he said. “That’s just unbelievable.”
The island’s abrupt disappearance has left scientists scrambling to figure out exactly what repercussions its absence could have on the environment, and what this event signals about the potential effects of climate change.
“We really have more questions than answers,” Kosaki said. He and other researchers probably won’t be able to fully assess the damage caused by Hurricane Walaka and their implications until they can travel to the islands next year during the summer field season.
According to a statement from the monument, staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA took aerial photographs of the area over the weekend, and those images are being analyzed. Additionally, a marine debris team scheduled to stop at the French Frigate Shoals later this week will “do a preliminary assessment of the damage and impacts to wildlife,” the statement said.
What happened to East Island is a “wake-up call,” Kosaki said. Scientists may not only have to address the problems stemming from rapid changes in the natural world sooner, but “perhaps in much more severe form than we were anticipating,” he said.
“We’re losing things in two different ways at two different rates,” he said, noting that other nearby islands have already been engulfed by the rising ocean. In the 1990s, Whale-Skate Island started eroding away and more recently, in September, Trig Island disappeared, Kosaki said.
“We were expecting . . . this slow erosion of islands,” he said. “Losing an island overnight is an eye-opener. It really makes climate change real.”
Chip Fletcher, an associate dean at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, told The Post he estimates that about 95 percent of East Island was destroyed.
“It looks from the second photograph that the sea floor was just smeared or buried in the sand that used to be the island,” said Fletcher, who is a climate scientist and had just been on East Island during the summer conducting research.
Fletcher, like Kosaki, thought the islands in the French Frigate Shoals had between 10 to 30 years before disappearing completely, and that may still be the case. The powerful hurricane running right across East Island was “very bad luck,” he said.
The island was devastated by the storm surge that accompanied the hurricane, Fletcher said. East Island’s highest elevation is only about six feet, and Fletcher predicted the surge reached anywhere from five to 15 feet.
“The whole thing was probably just completely underwater,” he said, adding that the “energy of the waves” then scattered the loose sand, which was largely held in place by vegetation.
Although the storm’s path through the French Frigate Shoals may have been “bad luck,” researchers say its power and unusual northern location can be attributed to climate change.
“The fact that such a strong hurricane was so far north is made more probable under the conditions of climate change, under the conditions of global warming,” Fletcher said.
Recently, storms have been increasing in frequency and severity, which Kosaki said is clear evidence that climate change is occurring. Hurricanes are “thermal engines” that feed off hot seawater, and sea surface temperatures are rising, he said.
In August, two hurricanes, one a Category 3 storm and the other a massive Category 5 system, passed near the main Hawaiian islands. Several other catastrophic storms have also struck along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico region in recent months. Tuesday evening, Hurricane Willa made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane, slamming into Mexico’s west coast with “life-threatening storm surge, wind and rainfall,” The Post’s Capital Weather Gang reported. On Thursday, Super Typhoon Yutu, one of the strongest storms in the world this year, pummeled the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, The Post’s Chris Mooney and Juliet Eilperin reported.
“The take-home message is climate is real and climate change is happening now,” Kosaki said. “It seems to be happening faster than any of us expected.”
The fate of East Island “does not bode well for the entire Pacific,” Kosaki said.
“In this case, it hit an island that was unpopulated by humans,” he said. “Can you imagine if a hurricane like this hit a populated atoll?”
Many Pacific atolls, made up of similar low-lying sand islands, are populated. Fletcher called East Island a “proxy” for sovereign nations such as the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, Tuvalu and the Republic of Kiribati.
“Those are four sovereign nations with two- or three-thousand-year-old cultures that live on the exactly same sort of island,” Fletcher said. The obliteration of East Island, he said, “shows how at risk these sovereign nations are.”
Though no people were on East Island when the storm hit, scientists are concerned about the potentially devastating impact the island’s loss could have on the threatened wildlife that have relied on it as a breeding ground.
Annually, about 30 percent of Hawaiian monk seal pups are born at East Island, Charles Littnan, protected species director for NOAA’s Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center, told The Post. Roughly 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals exist in the wild, and a majority of the federally protected population live in the remote northwestern islands, according to NOAA.
But Littnan said East Island and its neighboring islets are “exceptionally more important” for green sea turtles. The area is used by 96 percent of the Hawaiian green sea turtle population as a nesting ground, and half of those turtles favor the now-gone island, he said.
“East Island is the most important — or was the most important — breeding island for threatened Hawaii green sea turtles,” he said.
Luckily, the hurricane passed over East Island late in the breeding season for both turtles and seals, Littnan said, so the short-term damage is “not as catastrophic as it could be.” Only 19 percent of the nests on the island had not yet hatched, and it is believed that one monk seal pup may have been left on shore.
“The timing of it, from an animal standpoint, was about the best that we could hope for,” he said.
The question is whether the turtles and seals, both of which retain strong ties to where they were born and often return to the same place to breed themselves, can continue to adapt — and right now Littnan said the answer isn’t clear.
“Every species on the planet has evolved to be adaptive and be able to respond to a changing environment up to a point,” he said. “Change might come so fast and so hard, like East Island disappearing, that no species is going to have that level of resilience.”
If that happens, “it’s going to require our collective genius of all of the people managing these species or these places to do some potentially pretty heroic things, and very creative things,” he said.
Fletcher said he and other researchers have already started thinking about how East Island could be recovered. There’s a chance that it happens naturally, he said, as trade winds create waves to push the displaced sand back. Another option is creating an artificial island by dredging sand or building revetments.
“The biggest loss is one more island is gone. One more place for nesting is gone,” he said. “We’re down to just two or three or four now.”
He added, “Climate change is tearing the fabric of biodiversity that makes our planet so resilient and such a fascinating and beautiful place to live. As we punch one hole after another into these ecosystems, they eventually lose what their coherent essence is. They just become a set of fractured places and fractured species.”
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