Palmyra Atoll Yesterday and Today

The 2010 Expedition has arrived in the Northern Line Islands. First stop: Palmyra Atoll.

One of the islets that make up Palmyra Atoll today. Photograph by Jen Smith.

Today Palmyra Atoll looks like the sort of place where one would expect to find a genuinely pristine coral reef. As part of the Northern Line Islands, it is located in a particularly remote region of the central Pacific. Along with Kingman Reef, Palmyra and its surrounding coral reefs is part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, thus protected. The small amount of land above water is uninhabited except for a few eco-conscious overseers, the staff at the research station, and the researchers who come and go throughout the year. Research activities are carried out under the auspices of the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium (PARC) that was formed in 2005 as an interdisciplinary partnership of research, conservation, and educational institutions (including Scripps Oceanography). The atoll’s isolation and exceptionally rich ecosystem make it a valuable site for studying not only coral reef biodiversity, but also reef restoration and the effects of changing climate, at ecological levels spanning the range from microbial metagenomics to ecosystem dynamics.

The “healthy” reefs of Palmyra support less than half as much fish as nearby Kingman Reef. (Tabuaeran and Kiritimati are the Gilbertese names for Fanning and Christmas.) Credit: Coral Health Index.*

The legendary reefs of Palmyra with their colorful coral gardens and numerous sharks have often been touted as pristine. You might expect its CHI to be very high, close to that of the gold standard: Kingman Reef. And indeed, its microbial health is excellent. But there are less than half as many tons of fish in the waters here as at Kingman, with a particularly marked decrease in the number of sharks and other big predators. And the coral cover on the bottom is also only half that of Kingman Reef. Overall, of the eight reefs surveyed so far in the Line Islands, only heavily populated Christmas and Fanning have a lower CHI. Does this contradict the proposition that local human activities are the primary factor responsible for the degradation of the reefs at Christmas and Fanning? No, but it does remind us that we must consider past human impacts, as well as present.

The first landing here by Westerners came with a thunk when the US ship Palmyra was wrecked on the reefs in 1802—just four years after the atoll had been sighted by the American captain Edmund Fanning. The large scale destruction, however, came later, under the guise of construction, when the atoll served as the Palmyra Island Naval Air Station during World War II. Personnel reshaped the atoll by dredging a channel to allow ships to enter the protected lagoon, then added dikes across the lagoon to provide even more shelter by reducing the water flow. Coral rubble was bulldozed to make an airstrip. Before leaving, the military dumped several tons of ammunition and ordnance into one of the ponds created by the dikes. They left behind an atoll that could no longer be called pristine.

Manini and corals on a shallow reef at Palmyra Atoll.

After the war, Palmyra returned to the hands of private owners who, fortunately, rejected offers from commercial interests seeking to develop the atoll, as well as a proposal by the USA government to make of it a nuclear waste dump. A bit of notoriety came in 1991 when the story of the 1974 murder at Palmyra of two members of the liveaboard sailing community was retold by attorney Vincent Bugliosi in his book and TV series, And the Sea Will Tell. In 2000, events took a turn for the better when the Nature Conservancy purchased most of the 680 acres above water with the intent of insuring Palmyra’s preservation. The atoll along with its surrounding waters and coral reef were given protected status as the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in 2001 and subsequently incorporated into the new Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in 2009.

Today Palmyra is host to the Fish, Benthic, and Microbe Teams who have eagerly plunged into their work, into the clear waters, to begin surveying the local reef community and measuring its productivity. Members of the Paleo-Benthic Team will also be investigating the Palmyra of the past, seeking to understand how events of a half century or more ago are impacting the reef’s CHI today. And the reef will tell.

* Kaufman, L., Sandin, S., Sala, E., Obura, D., and Tschirky, J. 2010. Coral Health Index (CHI): Measuring Coral Community Health. Science and Knowledge Division, Conservation International, Arlington, VA, USA. (In preparation. Available late November, 2010, at: