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Environment

A Hurricane Just Erased a Crucial Hawaiian Island

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Climate change is causing sea levels to rise and storms to get more extreme, threatening the existence of islands and coastlines around the world. You can join us in taking action on this issue here.

East Island, a Hawaiian island 550 miles northwest of Honolulu, was essentially wiped off the map by Hurricane Walaka in early October, according to Honolulu Civil Beat.

One of the most powerful storms to ever be recorded in the region, the hurricane submerged the island, which remains underwater weeks afterward.

East Island is a critical nesting and resting ground for two endangered species, the Hawaiian monk seal and the Hawaiian green sea turtle.

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There are around 1,400 wild Hawaiian monk seals and roughly 30% of new pups are born on East Island each year. Hawaiian green sea turtles are similarly embattled and around half of the species’ eggs are laid on East Island. Hurricane Walaka destroyed about 19% of this year’s eggs, according to HuffPost.

Climate researchers had long expected East Island to be swallowed by rising sea levels, but they had assumed it would be decades from now, Civil Beat reports.

The direct hit of Hurricane Walaka was enough to dramatically accelerate the island’s demise.

Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii climate scientist, told Civil Beat that he doesn’t know if the island will recover, especially because sea levels are gradually increasing and storms are likely to become more severe in the years ahead. If the island does happen to reemerge, then it will take several years for vegetation to once again take hold, he said, which could thwart animals from returning to the area.

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East Island is part of a string of islands known as the French Frigate Shoals. Many of the other islands that make up this network are similarly vulnerable to climate change.

In fact, another French Frigate Shoal was wiped out in the 1990s, according to HuffPost, and that was also an important breeding ground for the monk seals.

It's unclear what this means for endangered species that rely on the islands, but it could hasten their decline if they’re unable to find viable alternative islands.

“Species are resilient up to a point,” Charles Littnan, a conservation biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Civil Beat. “But there could be a point in the future where that resilience isn’t enough anymore.”

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Elsewhere in the world, islands and coastlines are being destroyed by rising sea levels.

At least eight Pacific Islands have been submerged by rising levels, and thousands of more islands are at risk in the decades ahead.

The Marshall Islands, in particular, are highly vulnerable to sea level rise and their disappearance would displace tens of thousands of people.

Overall, hundreds of millions of people are expected to be displaced from coastal areas as a result of sea level rise. Adding powerful storms to this mix could multiply the number of displaced persons, especially if recent history is any guide. In 2017, there were more than 18 million people displaced from weather-related events, including 7.5 million from storms.

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As people are displaced, animals and ecosystems will be similarly displaced. Off the coast of California, warming waters are undermining a vibrant ecosystem revolving around kelp forests, and coral reefs are dying all around the world because of marine heat waves.

The Hawaiian monk seals and Hawaiian green sea turtles are simply the latest victims of the global crisis of climate change.

“The take-home message is climate change is real and it’s happening now,” Randy Kosaki, the monument’s deputy superintendent for research and field operations for NOAA, told Civil Beat. “It’s not a hoax propagated in China as some folks have said.”