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.
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
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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.
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