Scientists knew East Island would someday be underwater, but they thought it wouldn’t happen until two decades from now. On Monday, however, researchers announced that the remote strip of land northwest of the Hawaiian Islands was now gone, erased into the ocean by Hurricane Walaka after it struck the atoll on October 2. Satellite images of the destruction courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show just how powerful a tropical storm can be — and serve as a warning for the future.

Chip Fletcher, Ph.D., is a professor and associate dean at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. In July, he was on East Island Conducting research on the network of ecosystem diversity that once thrived there. When he examined satellite imagery four months later, he was astonished to see East Island gone.

“I had a holy shit moment, thinking ‘Oh my God, it’s gone,’” Fletcher told Honolulu Civil Beat.

East Island
East Island, before and after. 

The near-disappearance of the 11-acre island is a major blow to the wildlife that relied on its presence. Critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals have historically used the island as their breeding grounds and a place to raise their young. Green sea turtles and albatrosses have laid their eggs on the island as well. Luckily, just 19 percent of the sea turtle nests were lost and all of the adult females tending the nests left before the Category 4 storm hit with its 150 miles per hour winds.

Previous to the storm East Island was the second largest island in the French Frigate Shoals, a series of small, sandy islets surrounded by a large crescent-shaped reef. This reef supports a variety of coral species, 600 types of invertebrates, and 150 species of algae. Randy Koaski, Ph.D., a field operations superintendent for NOAA, told Civil Beat that his team fearfully suspects the corals that surround East Island were also destroyed.

French frigate shoals
NASA picture of the French Frigate Shoals.

Geological structures as small as East Island are easy pickings for hurricanes, which accelerate the natural process of erosion. But Kosaki told The Guardian that climate change is driving the formation of fiercer storms, and that rising sea levels are a danger the low-lying islands that remain.

“The take-home message is climate change is real and its happening now,” said Kosaki. “It’s not a hoax propagated in China as some folks have said.”