Associate Editor
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Before and after pictures show East Island being completely wiped out by Hurricane Walaka earlier this month. Images: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Before and after pictures show East Island being completely wiped out by Hurricane Walaka earlier this month. Images: US Fish and Wildlife Service


The Inertia

Earlier this month, Hurricane Walaka raged toward the Hawaiian Islands as one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Pacific. Those who reside on the Big Island, Kauai, Oahu, and Maui were spared from direct landfall as the Category 4 storm slipped past just to the west, but according to reports, the hurricane chalked up a different sort of casualty: an entire island in the Hawaiian archipelago that was wiped completely off the map.

East Island, which is the second largest islet in French Frigate Shoals – an atoll over 500 miles northwest of Honolulu – is hugely significant to Hawaiian sea life. About 96 percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles, a threatened species, nest in French Frigate Shoals – half of them on East Island, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat. And it’s also a primary breeding ground for the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

On Monday, federal scientists confirmed that the island had completely vanished – the powerful winds of Hurricane Walaka apparently stripping the white sand from the tiny island and spreading it across the reef to the north.

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

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Fletcher explained that he knew eventually the tiny strip of sand that was East Island, where he was doing research earlier this year, would be swallowed by the sea as a result of climate change. But, he thought that would most likely be a decades-long process of sea levels slowly rising. That it would disappear virtually overnight was inconceivable.

And while the path of Hurricane Walaka and its impact on East Island isn’t a direct result of climate change, the storm’s magnitude and the fact it wasn’t the only major storm in the Pacific at the time sure is.

“The take-home message is climate change is real and it’s happening now,” said Randy Kosaki, NOAA’s deputy superintendent of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. “It’s not a hoax propagated in China as some folks have said.”

For now, officials say marine life will likely be fine but  resilience can only go so far.

There’s also uncertainty if East Island will come back or if it’s now lost forever. Whale-Skate Island, another of the French Frigate Shoals islets, slowly eroded until it was completely submerged in the 1990s. It hasn’t come back.

“Right now we have more questions than answers,” Kosaki said.