“One more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet is being dismantled.”
As Hurricane Walaka churned through the southern Pacific Ocean in early October, most people thought the greatest threat the storm posed was to four United States Fish and Wildlife scientists. They were stranded on Johnston Atoll, a tiny and otherwise uninhabited islet nearly 1,400 kilometers southwest of Hawaii.
That’s what they thought until East Island, another spot in the Hawaiian Island chain, was nearly wiped off the map, erasing a critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles. That discovery now has scientists studying the biodiversity impact, and comparing it with climate projections for increasingly powerful storms and sea level rise that threaten many of the planet’s low-lying islands.
Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii climate scientist, told local media, “Oh my God, it’s gone. It’s one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled.”
Fletcher and other scientists confirmed the East Island disaster using satellite imagery. Its fate happened faster than the gradual sea rise envisioned, and he called it a “silent tragedy” while quoting fellow marine biologist Carl Meyer on the potential impacts of the storm.
“This could have very serious implications for the seals, turtles and birds,” he said. “East Island was the nesting beach for most of Hawaii’s green sea turtles.” The endangered seals there make up much of the Hawaii monk seal population, and “it wouldn’t surprise me if this storm killed this year’s cohort of pups and some of the adults.”
Walaka grew to a Category 5 storm with winds of 260 kilometers per hour on October 1, prompting a warning for the atoll. The field biology crew working at a year-round camp on tiny Johnston – it’s just 2.7 square kilometers, with its highest point at 10 meters – originally planned to ride out the storm. When Walaka became a greater threat, they called for the airlift rescue from the U.S. Coast Guard.
“Johnston Atoll is extremely remote and difficult to reach,” warned Capt. Robert Hendrickson, chief of response for the Coast Guard’s 14th District. “We encourage anyone operating in the Pacific to keep an eye on the weather as this storm moves toward the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.”
So they did keep an eye on Walaka as it approached the entire Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a 2,200-kilometer stretch of coral islands and atolls that is one of the world’s largest marine conservation areas. Seven others scientists were rescued by a research vessel from French Frigate Shoals, another atoll in the volcanic island chain.
The archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is home to 14 million seabirds that breed and nest there, from 22 different species – including four found nowhere else on earth. It’s also a habitat for stunning coral reef fish, as well as the Hawaiian monk seals and the green sea turtles.
All told, there are 7,000 species of marine animals, birds and other wildlife. “At least one quarter are endemic, found nowhere else,” the U.S. marine sanctuaries office, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says. More remain unidentified or even unknown to science.
That’s what made the direct strike of Hurricane Walaka such a cause for concern. By the morning of October 3, it was still packing winds of 220 kph after battering Johnston Atoll and heading for the Papahanaumokuakea island chain. It arrived late that same day, with 205 kph winds driving water.
“These large waves will likely inundate some of the low-lying atolls,” the Honolulu-based hurricane center warned. That’s exactly what happened to East Island, which was just 120 meters wide and less than a kilometer long to begin with. There’s little left, and scientists are unsure if it will ever be back.