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Atolls' tsunami damage compared to warming

By Rosemarie Bernardo

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:47 p.m. HST, Apr 04, 2011


The damage caused to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands due to the tsunami generated by the March 11 earthquake in Japan offered a preview of what could happen "when global climate change causes the sea level to rise," warns Beth Flint, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

"As the low-lying atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands become inundated, there will be an attendant reduction in available habitat for the 14 million tropical seabirds that have always used these land features for breeding and nesting," Flint said yesterday.

She was part of a six-person team from state and federal agencies that conducted an aerial survey of tsunami damage in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The Coast Guard flew the officials over the islands on Wednesday.

Further assessment by the co-managers of the Papa­hanau­moku­akea Marine National Monument team will be done later.

A dozen field camp workers and volunteers on the islands were able to evacuate to higher ground during the tsunami; they have returned to Honolulu.

Federal officials said the damage was extensive:

» At Midway Atoll about 110,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks were killed, 22 percent of the seabird population.

» Structural damage on Midway was estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars, according to Ray Born, acting deputy superintendent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serv­ice. Damage to the sea walls on the south side of the atoll and a couple of docks at the inner harbor was observed along with damage to a dock at Eastern Island.

Damage also was observed to the seaplane hangar at Midway, a historic structure built during World War II that is due to be restored.

» At Kure Atoll west of Midway, some 500 to 600 black-footed albatross chicks were lost.

Eggs estimated in the hundreds also were washed away by the massive waves, according to Cynthia Vanderlip, field camp supervisor at the atoll for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Forestry and Wildlife. Vanderlip was at the atoll for 300 days until the tsunami struck. Albatross chicks that drowned in the tsunami were being eaten by ghost crabs.

Jason Misaki, a wildlife biologist with the DLNR's Division of Forestry and Wildlife, said officials have concerns of polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, after the tsunami swept over a 4,500-cubic-yard landfill on the southwestern side of Green Island, part of Kure Atoll. Old parts in the landfill contain PCB, a toxic chemical that can cause cancer and other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system in mammals, according to the EPA website.

CORRECTION: The size of the landfill at Kure Atoll is 4,500 cubic yards. About 600 cubic yards of the landfill contains concentrated levels of polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, a toxic chemical. A previous version of this story stated the landfill was 600 cubic yards.






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