Friday, December 14, 2012

Tern Island research station destroyed, crew evacuating

The remote research station at Tern Island on French Frigate Shoals will be evacuated next week after a devastating storm Sunday destroyed buildings, displaced and harmed some seabirds and wiped out the island’s communications and electrical systems.

The five-person U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team on the island described a 5 a.m. Dec. 9 event that sounded like an oncoming freight train. It blew out walls and windows in the main barracks, destroyed the boat shed, impacted seabird populations, and caused other damage still not tallied. The team members were not injured, and they have food and water.

The island’s communications system is gone, and the on-island team has only been able to communicate via a portable satellite phone, said Ann Bell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service incident commander.

“We’re pulling everyone out,” she said.

Photographs with this report were taken before the event. The Tern team is unable to send photographs. More details will be available when the supply vessel M/V Kahana, diverted from Johnston Atoll, arrives, perhaps by Monday, to evacuate the team.

(Images: top to bottom: Albatrosses with Tern Island barracks, note solar panels that are now destroyed; credit USFWS. Lightning strikes at French Frigate Shoals two weeks before the storm; credit Mike Johns/USFWS. Tern Island viewed from the air; credit Andy Collins/NOAA.  )

Tern Island is a small island on the reef at French Frigate Shoals, 450 miles northwest of Kaua`i, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It was built up during World War II using dredged material  and most of its surface employed as a landing strip until two years ago, when the coral runway was abandoned and converted to wildlife habitat.  It was a Coast Guard station until the late 1970s, after which it was converted into a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research station.
The team on island now includes one U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee and four volunteers, three men and a woman. There are also thousands nesting seabirds. French Frigate Shoals beaches are also the main nesting site for the Hawaiian green sea turtle population, and constitute significant habitat for Hawaiian monk seals.

Bell said a severe low pressure system crossed the shoals last weekend with gale force winds, but there appeared to be no particular cause for concern until Sunday morning. Two of the team members were awake and working in the old Coast Guard barracks when they heard an incredible noise.

“They said it sounded like a freight train, and then things started popping,” Bell said. The barracks building has a massive concrete frame, but the walls are wooden panels with windows.  She said windows blew out and wall panels ripped open or blew out, particularly on the south side of the building.

All the solar panels that provide power either blew off the roof or were so severely damaged they were inoperable, Bell said. The team was able to start an emergency generator for power. A boat shed was destroyed. Most structures were compromised in some way, and the damage to wildlife has not yet been tallied, although it is not believed to be extensive.

The Fish and Wildlife Service had the motor vessel Kahana at Johnston Atoll, several hundred miles to the south of French Frigate Shoals. The ship, which has a team of biologists on board, is being diverted to Tern, and its biological team will help assess the damage on the island.

The future of the Tern research station is yet to be determined, she said.

It is difficult, since the catastrophic event occurred in darkness, to know exactly what happened, Bell said. It is clear that an intense low-pressure system with gale force winds was crossing Tern. Storm conditions continued through Tuesday mid-day

The Fish and Wildlife Service team is not sure whether the damage Sunday morning came from an intense downburst or perhaps a waterspout or tornado confined within the larger storm.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012


  1. My son is on Tern. When sent link to the blog, his response was "not exactly what happened, but sums it up ok."

    USFWS is preparing to evacuate Tern Island on the the MV Kahana on Tuesday AM, weather permitting.

    -- Abram's dad

  2. My son is Tern. His response when provided a link to the blog was "not exactly what happened but sums it up ok."