A category 5 hurricane that swept through Hawaii earlier this month appears to have wiped an entire island off the map.
Hurricane Walaka made its way through Hawaii in early October, causing havoc on its path through the Pacific. It has since been downgraded to a category 4, and is continuing to trundle on, one of many large storms this year.
In its wake, however, it seems to have caused an island to disappear. Called East Island, it was located in an atoll known as the French Frigate Shoals, 885 kilometers (550 miles) from Honolulu.
Measuring just 4.5 hectares (11 acres), the spit of sand – only half a mile long – was not big by most standards. But it was the second largest island in the atoll, playing host to a US Coast Guard station until 1952 and it was also a key nesting ground for threatened green sea turtles and nursery for monk seals.
Following the storm, which was thought to be strengthened by climate change, satellite images from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) showed that the spit of sand has almost been completely submerged by the storm. It’s unclear what the damage to local wildlife on the island will be yet, but the signs aren’t good.
"About 96 percent [of Hawaiian green sea turtles] use the atoll and about half of them used this island," Professor Chip Fletcher from the University of Hawaii's School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology told ABC News.
The loss of the island was particularly painful for Fletcher. It’s thought to have existed for up to 2,000 years. But he and his colleagues had only started studying it in earnest in July this year.
“I uttered a swear word. I had a holy cow moment, somewhat in disbelief that it had disappeared,” he told The Guardian. “The island was probably one to two thousand years old and we were only there in July, so for it to be lost right now is pretty bad luck.”
Drone footage of the island taken by Fletcher and his colleagues earlier this year.
East Island’s disappearance highlights the fragility of small islands like this in the face of mounting climate change. Sea level rises are expected to claim more and more as time goes on, with this being a glimpse of what’s to come.
“We’re going to see a lot of these stories in the years ahead, and everyone will be so sad,” environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote on Twitter.
There is a chance that the island could reemerge in the future, noted the Honolulu Civil Beat. But it would take time to revegetate and become stable, while the return of nearby corals could take years. If ever we needed an example of the impact of climate change, this is it.