At Midway Atoll, Birds Take a Hard Hit from the Tsunami

The stories pouring out of Japan paint a heartbreaking picture of the enormous toll last week’s earthquake and tsunami have taken on the country and its people, and of the long road to recovery ahead.  That same violent earthquake also generated another tsunami that swept across the Pacific Ocean and eventually washed over a set of coral islands in the Hawaiian archipelago.  Now, as the process of rescue and recovery continues in Japan, a different sort of disaster response has begun about 2,000 miles away.

Midway Atoll, established as a national wildlife refuge in 1988, is usually a thriving home to endangered Hawaiian monk seals, threatened green sea turtles, 21 species of seabirds, and a diverse array of other wildlife.  Today, refuge staff are sifting through the damage, counting carcasses and rescuing those animals that made it through.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of Laysan albatross chicks nesting on the islands were killed when they were carried off with the water, and 1,000 of the adult and subadult birds are dead.  Others survived, but they are injured or stuck under toppled vegetation and debris.  Thousands of Bonin petrels, which nest in burrows, were likely buried under the sand.

While the losses are great, Midway Atoll has certainly rebounded from tsunamis and other natural disasters in the past.  Many plants and animals have adapted to such disturbances.  So, why should we worry now?  Because this time, a tsunami isn’t the only problem.  Ocean acidification, invasive species, and marine debris are ongoing threats.  And sea-level rise could put much of the habitat under water.  Together, these stresses could push the ecosystem beyond its ability to recover.

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Julie Kates is the Refuge Associate, Federal Lands Program for Defenders of Wildlife. Julie focuses on developing and implementing programs to enhance the conservation of biodiversity within the National Wildlife Refuge System, as well as supporting Defenders’ climate change adaptation work on federal lands.

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