Hawaii might've grown a peninsula this year, but it's now lost a whole 11-acre island, and perhaps endangered seals and turtles along with it. East Island, the second-largest islet in the French Frigate Shoals atoll, a few hundred miles northwest of the Hawaiian island chain, has disappeared since Hurricane Walaka swept through the area earlier this month. Drowned by storm surge, the island stretching 400 feet wide by half a mile long could reemerge in time, but that's no guarantee. Another island in the French Frigate Shoals vanished in the 1990s, never to be seen again, while the loss of another islet, Trig, within the last two months was projected for years due to high wave activity, per Honolulu Civil Beat and HuffPost.
Still, climate scientist Chip Fletcher thought it'd be decades before East Island washed away. "It's one more chink in the wall of the network of ecosystem diversity on this planet that is being dismantled," he tells Civil Beat, blaming Walaka's strength on rising temperatures. "These small, sandy islets are going to really struggle to persist," adds NOAA biologist Charles Littnan. "This event is confronting us with what the future could look like." Noting Walaka's surge is believed to have washed over all islands in the French Frigate Shoals, he especially fears for endangered animals: Some 225 of 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals live in the area, along with 96% of Hawaiian green sea turtles, half of which lay their eggs at East Island—an island that no longer exists. (As of December, this new island was holding strong.)