Have you heard of Hawaii’s East Island? Probably not, but you may remember it in the future as an early American loss to sea-level rise and extreme weather.
East Island was a sandbar that was a vital nesting ground for Hawaiian green sea turtles and habitat for Hawaiian monk seals. It was mostly wiped from the map following Hurricane Wakala, and it’s unclear whether it will ever fully resurface.
Wakala reduced the island from 11 acres of sand with sparse vegetation to a 150-foot patch of sand peeking above the waves, stunning scientists who had been surveying the island. The combination of sea rise and the hurricane’s storm surge, which lifts water at the center of the storm, led to the destruction of East Island in early October 2018.
Sea level is approximately six inches higher than in 1880, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The previous 20,000 years saw “little change,” the EPA noted, compared to the past 140 years.
East Island, which lies north of the main Hawaiian islands, was home to one-seventh of the world’s remaining Hawaiian monk seals.
“From my experience in cases like this, I had just assumed that the island had another decade to three decades of life left,” Dr. Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawaii told The New York Times. “It is quite stunning that it is now, for the most part, gone.”
What’s more disheartening is that East Island is not the first of the islands in the French Frigate Shoals to vanish — much less the first island worldwide to be swallowed by the sea. As disheartening as it is to see, if we don’t take action to prevent further rising sea levels or manage the seas, the list of locations wiped off the map will only increase.
However, there’s still hope. The tropical storm hit late in the breeding season for the green sea turtles, so most had escaped before the island was submerged, and some seals have already returned to what remains of the island.