A 4.5-hectare Hawaiian island was literally wiped off the map forever when Hurricane Walaka swept through the region earlier this month, just a couple of weeks before Super Typhoon Yutu brought 290-kilometre-per-hour winds to the Northern Mariana Islands in the worst storm to hit United States territory since 1935.
In Hawaii, “East Island, a remote spit of gravel and sand that sat atop a coral reef, has vanished after having the misfortune to come into contact with Hurricane Walaka,” The Guardian reports. Scientists confirmed its disappearance “after comparing satellite images of the surrounding French Frigate Shoals, part of an enormous protected marine area in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.”
The 0.8-kilometre-long, 122-metre-wide island had no human population, but provided important habitat for the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal. It hosted a U.S. Coast Guard radar station until 1952.
“I uttered a swear word,” said University of Hawaii earth scientist Chip Fletcher, whose team had been studying the island to assess the impacts it could see as a result of climate change. “I had a ‘holy cow!’ moment, somewhat in disbelief that it had disappeared.”
The team was on the island as recently as July. But now, “the top, middle, and bottom of it has gone,” Fletcher told The Guardian. “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 was far more fragile than I appreciated.”
In less than four weeks, the Climate Vulnerable Forum will host a virtual summit to shine a light on the impacts facing the countries at greatest risk due to climate change, including small island states.
In the Marianas, meanwhile, Yutu raged ashore as a Category 5 storm and left the Pacific islands of Saipan and Tinian “mangled”, a local official told the Washington Post.
“We just went through one of the worst storms I’ve seen in all my experience in emergency management,” the commonwealth emergency organization said in a prepared statement.
“We’re all grateful to god to be alive,” said Saipan resident Nola Hix.
“The Northern Mariana Islands are another U.S. territory to have been pummeled by a strong hurricane in the past two years. The U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico suffered calamitous strikes in the 2017 hurricane season, and Guam was recently struck by Typhoon Mangkhut,” the Post reports.
“According to figures released by the Weather Underground, Yutu was tied for fifth place when it comes to the highest wind speeds of any storm on record at the time of striking land.” In the U.S., just one storm—a hurricane that hit the Florida Keys on Labor Day in 1935—was stronger.
“Overall, the escalating impacts on U.S. island territories in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea underscore that as seas rise and storms worsen in the face of climate change, small islands face some of the most extreme risks on Earth,” the Post notes.
In the Marianas, “I knew the damage would be significant, but coming out in the morning, even with that knowledge, I was still surprised by how devastating it was,” said local attorney José Mafnas. After the storm stripped the tin roof off his house, “water was coming in through the wooden ceiling, and then eventually the whole ceiling just collapsed down to the floor. My house and my neighbours’ houses are pretty much destroyed…There’s just tin roofing all over the place.”
Across the island of Saipan, “roadways were littered with downed power poles and tree branches,” the Post adds, citing Mafnas. “Parked cars were smashed by debris, some overturned by the powerful winds. What used to be buildings were reduced to haphazard piles of tin and wood. If it wasn’t made of concrete, it’s probably gone.”
On the neighbouring island, “Tinian has been devastated by Typhoon Yutu,” said Mayor Joey San Nicolas. “Many homes have been destroyed. Our critical infrastructure has been compromised. We currently have no power and water at this time.”
Similar to Hurricane Michael’s sudden, devastating hit on the Florida Panhandle, Yutu’s extreme strike “occurred with little warning, as the storm strengthened from Category 1 to Category 5 in just a day’s time before landfall,” the Post notes. “The maximum sustained wind speed increased by 80 miles per hour over that time, resulting in a storm with gusts exceeding 200 miles per hour.”
Scientists “have recently suggested that such dangerous ‘rapid intensification’ events, which also happened with hurricanes Michael and Florence, may become more common as the planet warms and the oceans heat up, providing additional fuel for storms,” the paper adds.