By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest
A Category 5 hurricane that wiped away a small Hawaiian island could be a harbinger of the dangers of climate change.
East Island, a speck of land in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, was almost entirely washed away earlier this month by Hurricane Walaka, one of the most powerful Pacific storms ever recorded.
Scientists using satellite imagery confirmed that the loss of the island.
East Island Was Critical Habitat for Endangered Turtles and Seals
The uninhabited 11-acre islet was a critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles. “There’s no doubt that it was the most important single islet for sea turtle nesting,” conservation biologist Charles Littman told a news conference.
The seals and turtles that rely on the island had likely left for the season before the hurricane hit, Littman said. “But whether East Island will ever return and how any displaced animals will respond remains unclear.”
Islet May Remain Submerged Due to Climate Change
University of Hawaii climate scientist Chip Fletcher said he knew there was a possibility that rising sea levels would eventually put East Island completely underwater. But he thought it would take a couple of decades to happen, he told the Honolulu Civil Beat. The newspaper was the first to report the island’s disappearance.
“It’s one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled,” Fletcher said. He added that East Island may remain underwater partly due to climate change.
Strength of Hurricane Walaka Consistent with Global Warming
Walaka’s path wasn’t due to climate change, he explained, but its strength and timing were consistent with the effects of a warming ocean and rising global temperatures that make storms more intense. These characteristics are associated with climate change.
"Sea level is rising around the world; these low sandy islands become more and more vulnerable as the ocean rises," he said. "If the ocean was rising very slowly, there's the potential that these islands could adapt, but rapid sea-level rise, as is happening due to global warming, puts these islands out of equilibrium."
Fletcher also blamed the loss of the island on “just bad luck.” The fishhook trajectory that Walaka took when it turned north made a direct hit on East Island.
East Island Called ‘The Last Wild Place’ on Earth
East Island is part of the French Frigate Shoals in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. It is called “the last wild place” because it is one of the most remote places on earth.
The monument is the largest contiguous, fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag. It is also one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, encompassing 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean (362,073 square kilometers).