Climate change demonstrated its power to destroy earlier this week when a small Hawaiian island known as East Island vanished within hours after Hurricane Walaka rolled through, putting endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles in serious jeopardy.
One moment it was there, only to be gone in the next as the powerful storm slammed the island with wave after wave until it was submerged beneath the sea.
Some people will say that it’s just a tiny speck of land and that it doesn’t matter. But scientists know better.
“I had a holy shit moment, thinking ‘Oh my God, it’s gone,’” University of Hawaii climate scientist Chip 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.”
Indeed, East Island served as crucial habitat for monk seals and green sea turtles, both of which are still on the Endangered Species List.
“There’s no doubt that it was the most important single islet for sea turtle nesting,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conservation biologist Charles Littnan said, also pointing out that 30 percent of the dwindling monk seal population was born there.
“Species are resilient up to a point,” he continued. “But there could be a point in the future where that resilience isn’t enough anymore.”
And animals won’t be the only ones who suffer. Humans rely on a vibrant ecosystem. Our food supply and access to water depend on it. But many American lawmakers refuse to take climate change seriously, even though disappearing islands isn’t just happening in Hawaii, a U.S. state, but also on islands just off the mainland, such as Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
The residents are literally watching their island disappear before their eyes, but refuse to believe it’s being caused by the effects of climate change perpetrated by human activity. They believe it’s simply just normal erosion and flooding, which why most of them voted for President Donald Trump, a climate change denier, in 2016.
Earl Swift, an author who wrote a book about the island, spoke to National Geographic about what’s happening on Tangier Island and he understands that climate change is the problem.
“Clearly, if you take a step back and look at what’s happened here, wind-driven erosion does not explain what’s occurring,” he said. “Not only do you have water chipping away at Tangiers’ edges, (but) you also have it percolating up through the ground. This is an amphibious place to live. The slightest storm brings water up out of the marsh and the roads, and an astronomical high tide will make ponds of everyone’s yards. A lot of what’s happening—the ponding, the drowning of marsh, the widening of internal waterways—are standard by-products of climate change-induced sea level rise.”
And sea level rise is set to get worse quicker than we think.
Scientists are predicting that in the next 80 years sea levels will rise to the point where coastlines and coastal cities around the globe are inundated with flooding of biblical proportion — and that governments should be taking steps to prevent the devastation.
Researchers expected East Island to one day be submerged, but they thought it was years or decades away instead of hours or days.
“People should not look at this as a futuristic scenario of things that may or may not happen. They should look at it as the tragic story we are following right now,” University of California earth sciences professor Eric Rignot told The Washington Post in 2016.
Rignot went on to warn that if we want to prevent this future, we need to urgently reduce carbon emissions caused by the use of fossil fuels.
But Trump has not only withdrawn the United States from global climate accords, but he has also increased our reliance on coal and oil, all while giving polluters permission to pollute.
And that’s bad news for Tangier Island residents, who believed Trump would save them, their island and their livelihoods, which includes harvesting seafood such as crabs.
“What communities like Tangier represent is the earliest chapter in what is going to be a very painful story, not only in the American experience, but the experience of governance and civilization around the world,” Swift observed. “Places like Tangier force us to confront a problem that’s going to grow exponentially in the next few years: how to decide what is saved and what is surrendered to the sea because we lack the time, money, and technical means to save every place.”
And we know this not just because of East Island being wiped out, but because islands around the world are dealing with the same problem.
Take Tuvalu for instance. Tuvalu has been asking for aid since the Bush Administration, begging world leaders to not only help them, but to reverse climate change so that sea levels won’t swallow their island and force them to leave it.
Hilia Vavae, Tuvalu’s chief meteorologist, explained to Smithsonian Magazine how her tiny island nation is being devastated by sea level rise caused by climate change.
“I think we have a lot to worry about,” she said. “Cyclones and tropical storms have been getting much worse since the 1980s. We had a big drought starting in 1999. Flooding from extreme high tides is increasing also. In the late 1990s, water started coming out of the ground—first puddles, then a whole sea. That had nothing to do with rain.”
It’s the same kind of “percolating” effect occurring on Tangier Island.
We all know that hurricanes have been getting stronger over the years, taking what used to be a rare 100-year storm that has become a common occurrence. And that’s because temperatures are rising, and warmer oceans fuel more powerful storms.
“When warmer temperatures cause stronger cyclones to spin up, their lower central pressures can drive larger storm surges and waves right onto a place like Tuvalu,” Kathleen McInnes, a senior climate modeler at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation said, describing exactly what also happened to East Island this week.
Seawater flooding is particularly threatening because it could contaminate freshwater sources, which hurts wildlife and humans. And we are already on the way to the point of no return when many islands, including Tangier Island, will be uninhabitable.
“The tipping point when potable groundwater on the majority of atoll islands will be unavailable is projected to be reached no later than the middle of the 21st century,” US Geological Survey researcher Dr. Curt Storlazzi remarked while talking to The Independent about a study on sea level rise.
“The overwash events generally result in salty ocean water seeping into the ground and contaminating the freshwater aquifer,” USGS hydrologist Dr. Stephen Gingerich added. “Rainfall later in the year is not enough to flush out the saltwater and refresh the island’s water supply before the next year’s storms arrive repeating the overwash events.”
So, it’s likely that East Island will never recover even if it re-emerges from the ocean depths, and if it does, it will be a long wait that monk seals and green sea turtles can’t afford.
Randy Kosaki, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (which includes East Island) deputy superintendent for research, not only rejected the denial of climate change, he took a shot at Trump at the same time.
“The take-home message is climate change is real and it’s happening now,” he said. “It’s not a hoax propagated in China as some folks have said.”
Climate change is a reality and has been for decades now. Global temperatures are at record highs year after year and it’s only going to get hotter if we don’t do something about it.
Sea level rise threatens major cities all along the coastline, including Miami and Boston. Many of these cities just happen to be in states controlled by Republicans who refuse to acknowledge that a crisis is impending. North Carolina Republicans refused to implement recommendations designed by scientists to prepare for rising seas, only to watch the state get hit by Hurricane Florence and the massive flooding it brought with it. That kind of ignorance will get thousands of people killed and result in cities and towns drowning in the future.
The drowning of East Island mostly affects wildlife, but it’s a reminder that sea level rise is happening and that our own species is not immune to the devastating impact of climate change, an impact we have the power to prevent or reverse if we take immediate action instead of waiting for a deity to miraculously fix it for us.
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