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  • Hawaii's East Island before and after storm surges from Category 5 Hurricane Walaka.

    Hawaii's East Island before and after storm surges from Category 5 Hurricane Walaka. | Photo: US Fish and Wildlife

Published 27 October 2018

The island is an uninhabited chain of small island groups that served as a refuge for two of the world’s top endangered animals: the Hawaiian green sea turtle and the Hawaiian monk seal.

Hawaiian endangered species haven, East Island, has virtually been wiped off the map following storm surges brought on by Category 5 Hurricane Walaka earlier this month.

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“Our understanding is that these islands are formed as sea level falls,” Chip Fletcher, an earth science professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Sea levels are rising right now so the fundamental basis for forming these islands no longer exists. So we have some reason to be optimistic that it wasn’t totally devastating,” Fletcher added. “But the final assessment will rest with the biologists.”

The island is an uninhabited chain of small island groups in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument that served as a refuge for two of the world’s top endangered animals: the Hawaiian green sea turtle and the Hawaiian monk seal.

Almost 96% of the green turtle population migrates to the region, known as the French Frigate Shoals, for nesting, according to Fletcher.

Green sea turtle Photo: Reuters FILE

“As we moved around the island this past July, every single step we had to be careful, because there was evidence of turtle nesting,” Fletcher explained to CNN. “But, thankfully, most of the eggs would have hatched and the hatchlings gone, by the time the hurricane hit.” 

Additionally, the Hawaiian monk seals spend most of their time on the island sunbathing on the beaches. The population of the seals has dwindled to about 1,400, globally.

Satellite images showed that the 11-acre island, which is located 550 miles northwest of Honolulu, is now mostly submerged.

“Sea level is rising around the world, these low sandy islands become more and more vulnerable as the ocean rises,” the earth science professor noted. “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.”

Fletcher says it is likely that other islands would be disappeared underwater. “The probability of something like this happening has risen and will continue to rise as we warm the ocean and atmosphere.”

The scientist also commented that, though unlikely, the effects of the massive storm could be reversed.

"The trade-wind waves may push that sand back towards where it originally was, and we might see some [re]building of the island. But our understanding of these islands is that they formed on a falling sea level around 2,000 years ago. We are currently in a stage of rising sea level, and so the fundamental background conditions for re-forming this island don't exist."

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