Coast Guard evacuates scientists as Hurricane Walaka churns toward Johnston Atoll

They had originally planned to ride out the storm.

Coast Guard evacuates scientists as Hurricane Walaka churns toward Johnston Atoll
Johnston Atoll was placed under a hurricane warning ahead of Walaka's approach. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii could see increased surf, humidity and light showers from Hurricane Walaka, but Johnston Atoll southwest of the state is in for a a much rougher ride.

Four scientists on the atoll originally anticipated to ride out the major hurricane in hurricane-proof shelters.

But when the storm was upgraded to a Category 5 on Monday afternoon, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials decided to evacuate the team. (The storm is now a Category 4.)

The Coast Guard confirmed Tuesday that the four scientists had been airlifted out.

“Johnston Atoll is extremely remote and difficult to reach. Our resources place us in a position to lend assistance to our partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and we are glad help,” said Capt. Robert Hendrickson, chief of response, Coast Guard 14th District. “We encourage anyone operating in the Pacific to keep an eye on the weather as this storm moves toward the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.”

The four scientists on the atoll are a part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biology field crew.

Johnston Atoll is home to a year-round field camp. It’s also the preferred nesting site of thousands of seabirds of 14 different species.

“As with any severe weather event, wildlife will be affected,” said Laura McMarlin Beauregard, acting Refuge and Monument Supervisor. “Red-footed boobies, brown noddies, wedge-tailed shearwaters, masked boobies, and red-tailed tropic birds are currently nesting. It is the only nesting site in 450,000 square miles of ocean for them.”

The coral reefs surrounding the atoll could also take a hit if strong waves crack them, or cover them with sand and gravel.

While there will be losses, experts say birds are resilient and they expect the colonies will rebuild.

Johnston Atoll is reported to be one of the most isolated atolls in the world. Johnston is one of four islands that make up the 50-square-mile area.

Originally referred to as Kalama Island, the island was designated as a federal bird refuge in 1926, and placed under U.S. Navy control by President Roosevelt less than a decade later.

Johnston Atoll features an airport and shelters for the biologists, and favorable conditions for bird habitats.

This story may be updated.

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