New satellite images released this week showed that East Island, a remote 11-acre stretch of sand that was officially part of the French Frigate Shoals in Hawaii, has disappeared. The island, Science Alert explained, was essentially wiped off the map following the storm surge that came with Hurricane Walaka, which was one of the most intense Pacific hurricanes on record.
"I had a holy shit moment, thinking 'Oh my God, it's gone,'" Chip Fletcher, a climate scientist from the University of Hawaii, told Honolulu Civil Beat. "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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The disappearance of the island could indeed put local fish and wildlife in danger. As HuffPost reported, the island, which was a half-mile long and 400 feet wide, was a crucial habitat for the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal and several species of seabirds. It is also home to the Hawaiian green sea turtle, which is a threatened species. Nearly half of all Hawaiian green sea turtles laid their eggs on East Island before it disappeared.
Charles Littnan, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s protected species division, explained to HuffPost that it could take years to understand what impact this loss will have on the species that called it home.
“These small, sandy islets are going to really struggle to persist,” Littnan said. “This event is confronting us with what the future could look like.”
Fletcher warned things will likely only get worse thanks to the increasing power of storms in the region and imminent climate change.
“This is not surprising when you consider the bad luck of a hurricane going into that vicinity and sea level rise already sort of deemed the stressor in the background for these ecosystems,” he told HuffPost. “The probability of occurrences like this goes up with climate change.”
Though the small island could one day reappear, it’s not likely. Now, scientists are looking at how they can protect these island paradises from ever disappearing again. As Littnan said, “We’re going to have to look at really creative ways to help support these species to persist into the future.”