One Year Later: Midway Atoll Still Taking Tally of Tsunami's Effects

USFWS Pacific/CC BY 2.0

Washed away. Washed ashore. Buried alive. Rolled and broken.

Even though Midway Atoll is about 2,400 miles away from Japan, the tsunami waves that hit the three small islands just five hours after the 9.0 earthquake on March 10, 2011 caused an incredible amount of death and damage for the wildlife. While every person on the islands was safe, waiting for morning on the third floor of Charlie Hotel, one thought weighed heavily: what was going on outside? Everyone spent the next two days working to save any birds that were still alive, whether they were buried in debris or exhausted and floating in the water of the lagoon and harbor.

We landed on Midway exactly one year after the tsunami hit. Not having visited before, I didn't have a perspective on how the islands changed and what amount of recovery had occurred over the last 365 days. But there were several travelers with me who had recently been to Midway and over the course of the next week, it was clear that there were a lot of changes, and some of the big changes are yet to occur.

Midway Vulnerable To Sea Level Changes

The coral and sand islands of Midway lie no more than about 7-10 feet above sea level at their highest points, so the 1,500 or so acres of emergent land that the three islands form are susceptible to rises in sea level. The islands are part of an atoll, which means it is surrounded by an almost complete ring of emergent coral reef. As Wayne Sentman, a biologist with Oceanic Society, explained, when the tsunami waves hit the atoll, it filled like coffee cup -- water comes in and fills it up, and sloshes around until it slowly drains back to a normal level. That means a wave doesn't just hit and recede, but the water level takes time to readjust. The islands are important resting and nesting areas for 21 species of seabirds. Millions come to the island to breed, and several of those species do so on the ground near the water or underground in burrows.

Pete Leary / USFWS Pacific/CC BY 2.0
Bonin Petrel buried up to its neck after the tsunami.

The albatross is a glider. The birds aren't able to quickly take flight to escape an oncoming wave, and chicks at this time of year aren't very mobile. So when the waves hit in the middle of the night, the birds sleeping on the ground were rolled up with the wave and any debris being carried by the water. When this happens, they can only tumble until the wave stops, and when the wave retreats it takes soil, debris, and wildlife along with it. If the birds that get pulled out with the wave are still alive, they are so water logged that they're too heavy to try and take flight, and thus can drown.

Pete Leary / USFWS Pacific/CC BY 2.0
Two exhausted Laysan albatross washed into the lagoon at Midway Atoll.

Shireen Gonzaga writes on EarthSky, "At the time of the tsunami, four species were nesting on the islands. There were 482,909 pairs of Laysan albatross, 28,581 pairs of black-footed albatross, and 1 pair of the endangered short-tailed albatross. There were also nesting Bonin petrels but because they nest in burrows in the sand, it was hard to determine their numbers. About 110,000 Laysan and black-footed albatross chicks were killed by the tsunami and two severe winter storms on January 14th and February 11th. Among them, the tsunami and the storms killed 22% of all chicks hatched this year."

Pete Leary / USFWS Pacific/CC BY 2.0
The Short-Tailed albatross chick and a Black-footed chick spared during the tsunami.

According to the USFWS, "The Short-tailed albatross nest was washed over again, but the chick was found unharmed about 35 m away and returned unharmed to its nest area. A minimum of 2,000 adult/subadult and tens of thousands of Laysan Albatross chicks were lost. Thousands of Bonin petrels were buried alive. Spit Island completely washed over. Eastern and Sand Island were 60% and 20% washed over, respectively. Thousands of dead fish were found in the interior of Eastern. Two live green turtles were rescued from the middle of Eastern. The impacts on Laysan ducks and monk seals are unknown."

USFWS Pacific/CC BY 2.0
Two sea turtles were rescued from the interior of Eastern Island in the aftermath of the tsunami.

The farther inland they were at the time of the tsunami, the safer the birds were. Here is a map showing the overwash area affecting all the islands:

USFWS Pacific/CC BY 2.0

Native Habitat Helped Keep Some Areas Safer

Tony Ernst, a photographer and visitor to Midway the night of the tsunami, writes, "When the tsunami hit there was no dramatic roar of surf, no surge of water around the building. There wasn’t even a noticeable decrease in volume of the constant squawking of the millions of seabirds nesting on the island to which I had become inured during my visit to Midway Atoll. There was no indication at all that anything was different."

That's because Charlie Hotel, once a military barrack, was out of the wash zone for the waves. It was noticed that along areas where native vegetation has been restored, the waves were not as destructive. For instance, one stretch of beach near two buildings (and near Charlie Hotel), the Clipper House, a dining hall, and Captain Brooks, the island's pub, had been replanted with naupaka, a plant that helps build up sand dunes. As it grows, sand blown by the wind piles up around its base. The plant then grows a little taller, and a little more sand piles up. Soon, it has helped to establish larger dunes. Those dunes serve as protection against events just like this. The areas directly behind the dunes were not as affected thanks to the vegetation and dunes acting as a buffer. There are ongoing efforts to clear beach areas of non-native vegetation and replant naupaka, and thus create better nesting habitat for the birds.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Few areas were so spared -- the devastation of areas that are too small, too low, and too flat is apparent.

Ernst writes of Spit Island, "Unlike the other islands there were few dead birds in evidence, and only two adults were found tangled in the brush. I later found another chick trapped in a thicket. This ended up being the full extent of our rescue mission, there was simply nothing left to save. From a total of 1,520 albatross nests surveyed on the island in December, there were now four chicks left."

Pete Leary / USFWS Pacific/CC BY 2.0

Debris Washed Away and Washing Up

One of the major differences noticed a year later is the delineation of where the waves hit. This is shown both in vegetation and the number of nests this year, as well as in marine debris.

Pete Leary / USFWS Pacific/CC BY 2.0
Floating island of debris and injured birds in lagoon at Midway Atoll.

Rebecca Jackrel, a conservation photographer on the trip with me, states, "It had been three years since my last visit to Midway. At Rusty Bucket, my favorite spot, I could indeed see a definite lack of Black-footed Albatross nests and yet the dune I had helped clear of invasive plants three years earlier was still there, still beautiful. The beaches seemed covered with more little bits of plastic than large identifiable pieces. At first I chalked it up to more visitors picking up more garbage until I visited Eastern Island. The beaches on Eastern are closed to the public, they are not cleaned and yet they seemed far more pristine than in my last two visits. It became very clear that the tsunami was to blame when we reached the area that the wash over had reached."

© Jaymi Heimbuch
A beach on the east side of Eastern Island, where there was very little plastic debris other than small pieces.

The arrival of debris washed from Japan was a popular conversation topic on Midway during our stay. It was scheduled to reach the atoll right around the time we were visiting. Its arrival has unknown affects on the islands, since the type and amount of debris isn't really known.

Sentman points out, "No one really knows how much is still floating in the ocean and what types of debris are they likely to see and in what amounts. Are whole houses and boats going to wash up or just tons (literally) of small plastic items. Not knowing what to expect and how much makes it hard to know what kind of response to have at the ready. For instance if there were lots of line and fishing gear washing up we might need to have more folks looking for monk seals that may be getting entangled at higher rates because of something like that."

According to USFWS, recent efforts have focused on monitoring strategies in the areas, which includes "systematic shoreline monitoring and removal of debris on Sand and Eastern Islands."

While picking up debris from the beaches is generally encouraged, there are plots set up on the beach where no one is allowed to clear debris. Debris is allowed to gather for a period of time, and then it is cleared and studied to determine types of debris, potential origins, and amounts. This gives officials insight into what is occurring on the atoll as a whole, as well as potentially what is occurring farther out at sea.

While we were visiting, we heard of debris of "questionable origin" washing up on Kure, which is a smidgen closer to Japan than Midway. This means that debris from Japan may be arriving. Some debris from the tsunami hit Midway soon after the event, though it wasn't from Japan.

On April 18, Pete Leary, Wildlife Biologist on Midway, writes, "Another thing [Refuge Manager, Sue Schulmeister] found [on Eastern Island] was a bucket that was labelled "Laysan Island". It was actually washed away from the camp on Laysan during the tsunami and washed up on the beach here about a month later. Laysan is around 500 miles away, so it got here pretty quickly."

This just shows that items from Japan isn't the only debris that the tsunami pulled into the ocean. And debris isn't the only bad things the tsunami spread around.

That !?#%^& Verbesina!

Leary writes, "The verbesina is going crazy on Eastern Island after the tsunami spread the seeds around. It killed all of the live plants, but it looks like it also germinated the seeds."

Think of the most pesky plant you've ever had to deal with -- a weed that never seemed to go away, that caused a host of problems in your garden, and if you could blow it up off the face of the planet, you would. That's what verbesina is to Midway.

© Jaymi Heimbuch
Some folks make their vendetta against verbesina well known.

The plant is an invasive species. It is prolific, it chokes up areas of land so that albatross can't nest or easily take off or land from flight, and the roots break up the soil which collapses the burrows of Bonin Petrels and the nests of other burrowing birds. It is a pain, and massive efforts have taken place -- with successful results -- to get rid of verbesina on the islands. So to see that the tsunami has helped seeds to spread is disheartening. That means more work is in store for staff and volunteers to get the verbesina back under control.

Sentman notes that when all the plants in the wash zone died, there was hope that it might help reduce invasive weeds, since native plants are salt tolerant. However, "[T]hen the vebesina came back in big numbers, even into areas where FWS had done a good job of limiting them. So a year later the problem is that invasives actually got re-established in areas and spread even more due to the tsunami."

The spread of verbesina could possibly be one factor behind the lower number of Black-Footed albatross nests this year.

Sentman states, "The overall nest count numbers on Eastern were down significantly this year as compared to the last few years. There are some ideas that the tsunami may have impacted the nesting areas in a few different ways [such as] spreading vebesina seeds making nesting sites harder to enter in November due to high weed growth. Also the changed beach front may have made it harder for adults to recognize proper nesting sites [though] really hard to be sure of anything at this point. Next year's nest count numbers should help clue us in if this was a one time decline or something that will take more seasons to rebound from."

Long-Term Changes on Midway Atoll

"It was odd being there just a few days after the tsunami, this rare once-every-50-or-100-years event," says Sentman. "Certain areas you would stand in you could look one direction and see only empty nest cups, every single chick was gone and the ground was brown. However, if you turned 180 degrees all the chicks were in their nest cups and everything was green, it made you realize how a mere few inches could mean the difference between life and death. Surviving in nature is always a careful balance of doing things at the correct times, having attentive and good parents, and in many years simply a matter of a little luck."

This luck may be vitally important to the bird species of Midway in the future. The tsunami made clear a few things. First, it illustrated how even the best laid conservation plans may not pan out. For example, the habitat that was in the middle of being creating for Laysan Ducks on Kure Island was washed over in the waves. This alerted the staff that there was probably a better, safer location for the habitat, and the habitat was relocated. It shows that even when you're working for the long-term survival of a species, it's hard to think of all the possible things that might affect the species, when those things happen once in a (human) lifetime.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Another thing made glaringly clear is the impact future sea-level rise will have on the atoll. As the ocean levels rise due to global warming, it’s low-lying islands of the Pacific will be affected -- indeed they already are being affected.

Shireen Gonzaga writes, "More than 98% of the total population of nesting Laysan and black-footed albatross are found at the northwestern Hawaiian island chain that includes Midway Atoll. Unlike the tsunami, the slow inundation of rising sea levels will be permanent, and could very well cause the extinction of these and many other seabird species."

The tsunami was a wake-up call in many ways. Now, a year later, conservationists are still taking a tally of effects and trying to predict the future. Even the best plans may get washed away.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

A portion of this journey to Midway was sponsored by the Oceanic Society. If you would like to visit Midway Atoll, check out upcoming dates.

Tags: Conservation | Global Warming Effects | longreads | Midway | Oceans

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