The days of islands vanishing under the waves are here. Hurricane Walaka, a monster storm that roared through the Pacific Ocean earlier this month, wiped out a tiny Hawaiian island known for harboring green sea turtles and endangered monk seals.
Scientists with the Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed the disappearance of East Island Monday, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat, and the realization has been unsettling. The 11-acre island located more than 500 miles from O’ahu is nearly all underwater after Walaka swept right over it.
This is a satellite image of East Island taken Monday, weeks after impact:
Pacific Islands going under has been a scary reality for quite some time: Kiribati’s president bought land in Fiji for his people back in 2014 so they’d have a new home when shit hits the fan. Sea level rise is an issue in Fiji, too, so one coastal village already moved a bit more inland in 2014 to prepare.
Still, an island completely washed away by hurricane-force winds and waves overnight? That wasn’t an expectation for scientists who frequent the island, per the Honolulu Civil Beat. Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii climate scientist, told the newspaper he expected sea level rise to overtake East Island some decades from now. The island is part of the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll with a coral reef area that stretches more than 232,000 acres as part of the Papahānaumokuākea National Monument, the largest protected conservation area in the U.S.
There’s a reason these waters are protected: The corals and associated atolls are home to a diverse array marine life, including the endangered monk seal and a threatened Hawaiian population of green sea turtles which come to the French Frigate Shoals to nest. East Island, in fact, has the highest density of green turtle nesting sites in Hawaii.
Scientists have yet to draw connections between Hurricane Walaka and climate change, but powerful, rapidly intensifying hurricanes like it are consistent with what we expect to see more of in a warmer world.
This time, East Island was the victim. Where will be next?