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Hawaii’s East Island Goes Missing After Category 5 Hurricane

By Sharelle Burt

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If planes going missing wasn’t enough, we can add missing islands to the list.

 

Hawaii’s East Island has vanished off the map. The island, located about 550 miles northwest of Honolulu, is part of a chain of small island groups in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. After the islands were swept by Hurricane Walaka, category 5 earlier this month, East Island was submerged.

 

Thankfully, the island isn’t home to residents but scientists are worried because it was home to some very special creature. Two of the world’s most endangered animals lived there, the Hawaiian green sea turtle and the Hawaiian monk seal. Almost 96% of Hawaii’s green turtle population travel to the island chain called the French Frigate Shoals. They nest there for safety during their breeding season, according to earth science professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Chip Fletcher. For the Hawaiian monk seals, there’s only about 1,400 of them left in the whole world. The special creatures tend to live on a permanent vacation, spending most of their time on the island lying under the sun and resting on its beaches.

 

Fletcher says they’re usually able to navigate their way around during storms like this one but for the turtles, scientists had to move carefully. “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 told CNN. “But, thankfully, most of the eggs would have hatched and the hatchlings gone, by the time the hurricane hit.”

 

So how is it possible for whole islands to just disappear? The islands in that area are tiny slices of sand and gravel sitting on top of a submerged, extinct volcano. For East Island, Fletcher says it could stay underwater because of the climate change.

 

Sea level is rising around the world, these low sandy islands become more and more vulnerable as the ocean rises,” Fletcher said. “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.”


 

Hurricane Walaka was just one of the several big storms that hit the Pacific this year, delivering winds of 157 mph. Fletcher says with warmer weather and warmer water being the reason behind storms getting stronger, don’t be surprised by other islands submerging underwater.

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Sharelle Burt

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