Hawaiian islet important for seals and turtles washed away by hurricane

Hurricane Walaka, one of the most powerful Pacific storms ever recorded, has erased an ecologically important remote northwestern island from the Hawaiian archipelago. Using satellite imagery, federal scientists confirmed Monday that East Island, a critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles, was almost entirely washed away earlier this month.

“I had a holy shit moment, thinking ‘Oh my God, it’s gone,’” said coastal geologist Chip Fletcher, a professor of Earth Science and SOEST’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. “It’s one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled.”

Fletcher was doing research in July on East Island, which is part of French Frigate Shoals in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. He said he knew East Island would eventually be underwater; he just thought it would take another couple decades or more for rising seas to swallow it up. Instead, a Category 4 hurricane eliminated it overnight.

East Island was only 11 acres—around a half mile long and 400 feet wide. But it was an important habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals, Hawaiian green sea turtles, and several species of seabirds. Scientists won’t know until next summer’s expedition what the underwater toll is, but they are assuming tons of sediment has covered parts of the coral reef system surrounding the island.

Read more about it in the Honolulu Civil Beat, Hawaii News NowThe New York Times, the Huffington Post, CNN, USA Today, The Weather Channel, SkyNewsEcoWatch, The GuardianNational Public Radio, and The Washington Post. Listen to an interview with Chip Fletcher at WBUR.