Aerial view of East Island French Frigate Shoals, in May 2018 (above) and in October 2018, after Hurricane Walaka (below). Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife

By Nathan Eagle
23 October 2018

(Honolulu Civil Beat) – Hurricane Walaka, one of the most powerful Pacific storms ever recorded, has erased an ecologically important remote northwestern island from the Hawaiian archipelago.

Using satellite imagery, federal scientists confirmed Monday that East Island, a critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles, was almost entirely washed away earlier this month.

“I had a holy shit moment, thinking ‘Oh my God, it’s gone,’” said Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii climate scientist. “It’s one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled.”

Fletcher was doing research in July 2018 on East Island, which is part of French Frigate Shoals in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. He said he knew East Island would eventually be underwater; he just thought it would take another couple decades or more for rising seas to swallow it up.

Instead, a Category 4 hurricane eliminated it overnight.

The hurricane’s pathway wasn’t a function of climate change, he said, but its strength and timing were consistent with the effects of a warming ocean and rising global temperatures that make storms more intense. […]

It’s unclear if East Island — an 11-acre spit of sand and gravel that hosted a U.S. Coast Guard radar station until 1952 — will ever return or how resilient the displaced animals will be.

About 96 percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles, a threatened population under the Endangered Species Act, nest in French Frigate Shoals, over half of which on East Island. And about one-seventh of the world’s critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals were born there, according to Charles Littnan, a conservation biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“There’s no doubt that it was the most important single islet for sea turtle nesting,” he said. [more]

Scientists are concerned about what will happen to the hundreds of endangered species that once called East Island home.

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