Why Has an Island off of Hawaii Disappeared?

It sometimes seems like the world gets stranger each day. Most things don’t even surprise me anymore. Turns out, it took an entire island disappearing to grab my attention. The culprit? Hurricane Lane—one of the largest storms to hit the Hawaiian Islands in decades. It made landfall earlier this month, but since the Hawaiian Islands aren’t accustomed to the wear and tear of hurricanes like many places that are more commonly hit (i.e. Florida), Hawaiian ecosystems are more vulnerable to these storms. In fact, a hurricane that actually hits Hawaii is such a rare occasion since only four major storms have made landfall since 1959, two tropical storms and two hurricanes. There are many factors that contribute to this, including Hawaii’s small amount of landmass and a western Pacific wind. This wind is triggered by a high-pressure system to the north that tends to move most storms towards Asia, meaning that conditions need to be very specific for a storm to make landfall. When these storms hit, they hit hard.

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It’s important to note that East Island isn’t one of the major islands in the Hawaiian chain, but the fact that it disappeared in one day is certainly still significant. Despite its size of only 11 acres, it has also played an important ecological role for threatened or endangered species like Hawaiian green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals. A team of biologists on the island counted 113 sea turtles and 220 seals there this year. “There’s no doubt that it was the most important single islet for sea turtle nesting”, says Charles Littnan, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The island is also surrounded by vibrant coral reefs, many of which are now covered in sediment after the incident, meaning that large sections of the reef may potentially be destroyed. Investigators are still trying to figure out exactly how much ecological damage was done by the storm and will be conducting an underwater study to assess reef damage this summer.

Courtesy: Alana Eagle


Need another reason to believe that this is significant? Occurrences like this could become more and more common due to climate change. Simply for Hurricane Lane to make landfall, a change had to occur in the Pacific. “Unfortunately for Hawaii, that high-pressure suit of armor moved west and has been wimpier than normal for the last year, letting the hurricanes in. The waters around the islands are also warmer than usual, adding power to approaching hurricanes”, says Jason Daley of Smithsonian Magazine. This is just one case study of what climate change can do to the weather patterns that many of us rely on, and the repercussions of strengthened storms on life in the affected areas. I can’t help but imagine what would have happened with Hurricane Michael if we were as isolated as Hawaii is and if Florida wasn’t used to dealing with these weather conditions. As for East Island, officials are using the next year or so to monitor the area and surrounding islands affected by Lane before they make any decisions about how to proceed.