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Two immense, separate storms have left trails of carnage throughout US islands in the Pacific Ocean – and one has indelibly altered the landscape through its destruction.
In the American state of Hawaii an entire island has been erased from the map, and neighbouring landmasses have seen severe damage. Hurricane Walaka, which grazed past the main Hawaiian Islands earlier in October, wiped away East Island – an 11-acre sandspit in the midst of a protected coral reef and the second largest island in the French Frigate Shoals. It was half a mile (0.8 kilometres) in length and 400 feet (122 metres) wide and unpopulated by humans; until the 1950s it played host to a US Coast Guard radar station.
After studying satellite imagery, scientists confirmed the island’s total disappearance from the atoll, which lies in the state’s leeward region. Chip Fletcher, professor of earth sciences at the University of Hawaii, said, “I uttered a swear word. I had a ‘holy cow!’ moment, somewhat in disbelief that it had disappeared.”
Fletcher and his colleagues had been researching East Island via drone. They were sampling sands and corals in the area to understand the island’s age and the potential impact from climate change.
“The island was probably one to two thousand years old and we were only there in July, so for it to be lost right now is pretty bad luck,” Fletcher added. “We wanted to monitor the island so we are disappointed it has gone, but on the other hand we have learned these islands are far more at risk than we thought. I thought the island would be around for a decade or two longer, but it’s far more fragile than I appreciated. The top, middle and bottom of it has gone.”
East Island was also a vital location for the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal; many of the animals raised their young on the island alongside seabirds and turtles.
Atolls, although always at some risk of annihilation from hurricanes, are increasingly under threat from both rising sea levels and climate change – which, as the mainland USA has found in 2018, is leading to far stronger storms than previously seen. In addition to the heightened ferocity, the typical paths taken by hurricanes are changing and moving into underprepared or previously ‘safe’ zones.
“The take-home message is climate change is real and it’s happening now,” said Randy Kosaki, senior official for the Hawaii monument at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to the Honolulu Civil Beat. “It’s not a hoax propagated in China as some folks have said.”
But Walaka isn’t the only catastrophic weather event wreaking havoc. The US Pacific Territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, which is located 3,800 miles (6,115 kilometres) west of Hawaii, has been left devastated by Super Typhoon Yutu, which hit the island chain late last week. US President Donald Trump has declared a disaster in the territory.
The USA’s National Weather Service said that sustained winds above 180mph (with gusts of more than 200mph) had buffeted the islands. The area is regularly rocked by intense weather events, but this particular event – equivalent to the strength of a Category 5 hurricane – is reportedly the second strongest storm ever recorded to hit the US, close behind the ‘Labor Day’ hurricane of 1935. It is tied for the most powerful storm of 2018 with Typhoon Mangkhut, which moved through the same region in September.
Residents of the Northern Mariana Islands were left with little time to prepare for the extreme winds after Yutu’s intensity rocketed in just a few hours. Widespread destruction has been reported on the island, with power and water estimated to be out for a number of months given the scale of damage and remoteness of the islands. Casualty figures have not yet been disclosed.
Yutu – which will be renamed Rosita as it enters Philippine waters – is weakening slightly as it makes its way towards South-East Asia. However, at the time it struck the Northern Mariana Islands, it is believed to have been one of the most powerful storms ever recorded after it strengthened massively just a day ahead of landfall.
This so-called “rapid intensification”, which also occurred with hurricanes Michael and Florence earlier this year, is predicted to become more common as the Earth and its oceans warm up due to climate change.
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