Ecologically-important Hawaiian island wiped out by devastating tropical hurricane

Researchers are yet to take stock of actual damage from the hurricane to the local fauna.

One of the smaller ecologically significant Hawaiian islands, located 500 miles off the coast appears to have been wiped out by the devastating Hurricane Walaka that hit the region earlier this month.

The island, called East Island, was already under threat from rising ocean levels, according to researchers at the University of Hawaii.

“Sea level is rising around the world, these low sandy islands become more and more vulnerable as the ocean rises,” Dr Chip Fletcher, earth science researcher at University of Hawaii told CNN.

“If the ocean was rising very slowly, there’s the potential that these islands could adapt, but rapid sea level rise, as is happening due to global warming, puts these islands out of equilibrium.”

What was expected well in the future, possibly in a decade or two, was brought on without warning by the hurricane, the researchers told Honolulu Civil Beat.

East Island before (left) and after (right) Hurricane Walaka. Image courtesy: US Fish and Wildlife

East Island before (left) and after (right) Hurricane Walaka. Image courtesy: US Fish and Wildlife

An aerial view of the island before and after the hurricane shows the island entirely submerged under the shallow water surrounding it. While uninhabited, the East Island’s strip of sand is a haven for two endangered species of animals – green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals, according to Earth.com.

A vast majority of the Hawaiian green sea turtles once nested on East Island, according to Charles Littnan, a conservation biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but have now moved to another neighbouring Frigate Shoals islands for nesting.

Researchers are yet to take stock of what the damage from the hurricane is on the local fauna.

While the hurricane was not a result of climate change, rising sea levels and added strength to storms put vulnerable areas – East Island and others of the like – at risk of erosion and destruction of local ecosystems.

“Whether or not East Island will come back is now a mystery, and even if it does, the process could take many years, and its stability is uncertain,” Randy Kosaki, deputy superintendent for research and field operations for NOAA, told the Honolulu Civil Beat.

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