Scientists studying a network of remote islands in the Hawaiian archipelago were aghast earlier this week upon discovering one of their subjects had disappeared entirely from the map, following a powerful storm that submerged the landmass in water.
The 11-acre East Island was part of the French Frigate Shoals—the largest atoll in the northwestern Hawaiian islands—and fell victim to Hurricane Walaka, which battered the state with Category 3 gales earlier this month. Observing the atoll with satellites, scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discovered East Island completely inundated with water, rendering it a nearly invisible patchwork of sand.
Speaking with Honolulu Civil Beat, Chip Fletcher, an earth sciences professor at the University of Hawaii, called the island’s sudden disappearance “a holy shit moment.” He said the event signals “one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled.” A marine debris team is poised to survey the area this week, according to Civil Beat, in an effort to deliver a preliminary assessment of the damage.
Though small, East Island supported a thriving ecosystem, with endangered monk seals, green sea turtles and native birds flourishing on the modest stretch, located 550 miles from Honolulu. The island vanished seemingly overnight, imperiling the already fragile monk seal population of 1,400 worldwide, many of which proliferate in the region. Moreover, the French Frigate Shoals are home to 96 percent of Hawaii’s green sea turtle population, half of which nested at East Island, according to the Huffington Post.
The environmental toll won’t come fully into focus for years, Charles Littnan, the director of the protected species division at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told Huff Po:
“These small, sandy islets are going to really struggle to persist” in a warming world with rising seas. This event is confronting us with what the future could look like.”
East Island was part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which the Obama administration expanded in 2016, making it the “largest contiguous fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag,”per its website.
East Island isn’t the first landmass engulfed by ring sea levels. A 2011 study published in Environmental Research Letters documented the gradual vanishment of five of the Solomon Islands over a 70 year period. Scientists from the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia noticed an eerily similar phenomenon in Micronesia last year, in what they warn could presage an increasingly grim situation for inhabitants of low-lying Pacific islands in the future.