October 25, 2018 – Fletcher, a climate scientist with the University of Hawaii, thought it would take decades for rising seas to eventually submerge the island. Instead, it was obliterated overnight by a major hurricane.
One of the most intense Pacific hurricanes on record at its peak, Walaka buzzed just 70 miles west of East Island as a major Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 mph, walloping Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
“I had a holy [expletive] moment, thinking ‘Oh my God, it’s gone,’” Fletcher told the Honolulu Civil Beat. “It’s one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled.”
East Island, part of French Frigate Shoals in the Papahanaumokuakea marine conservation area, was a crucial habitat for Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles. Now, it’s almost entirely gone, officials confirmed using satellite imagery.
Of the 96 percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles that nest in the French Frigate Shoals, more than half nest on East Island. About 15 percent of the world’s Hawaiian monk seals were also born there, said NOAA conservation biologist Charles Littnan.
Both Hawaiian green sea turtles and monk seals are endangered species.
Federal and state managers of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument announced they won’t know the extent of the damage until they can get out there.
All the islets had appeared to have been washed over by storm-powered waves in French Frigate Shoals, but East Island had been the hardest hit. Officials said it was unclear if the 11-acre plot of sand that once was home to a U.S. Coast Guard radar station until the early 1950s would ever return.