Offering a warning of what's to come as human-caused global warming increasingly exacerbates extreme weather, scientists have determined that Hurricane Walaka—one the Pacific's most powerful storms ever—washed away a remote and ecologically important 11-acre island in Northwestern Hawaii.
— 350 dot org (@350) October 24, 2018
East Island was part of French Frigate Shoals in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat, "a critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles."
While researchers expected that the gravel and sand island, perched atop a coral reef, would eventually disappear into the rising seas, the discovery—facilitated by satellite imagery—caught Chip Fletcher, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Hawaii, and his colleagues by surprise.
"I had a holy shit moment, thinking 'Oh my God, it's gone,'" said Fletcher, who had conducted research on the island in July. "It's one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled."
"It's one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled."
—Chip Fletcher, University of Hawaii
The extent of the ecological damage and whether the island will ever return is still unknown, but about a seventh of the entire population of Hawaiian monk seals—one of the most endangered marine mammals—was born on East Island, and more than half of all Hawaiian green sea turtles—which are classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act—had nested on it.
Randy Kosaki, the monument's deputy superintendent for research and field operations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said the French Frigate Shoals have now lost two islands in the same number of months.
"The take-home message is climate change is real and it's happening now," concluded Kosaki. "It's not a hoax propagated in China as some folks have said," an apparent reference to President Donald Trump's remarks that resurfaced during his campaign.
"These small, sandy islets are going to really struggle to persist" as the seas rise because of anthropogenic global warming, Charles Littnan, director of NOAA's protected species division, told the Huffington Post. "This event is confronting us with what the future could look like."
Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, concurred that the island's disappearance is a warning to humanity. "We're going to see a lot of these stories in the years ahead, and every one will be so sad," he tweeted.