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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 20, 2005

Palmyra research station opens

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The fading sun illuminates palm trees on Palmyra Atoll, a tiny national wildlife refuge 1,100 miles south of Honolulu. More than a million seabirds and an unusually large number of coral species live there.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photos

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A pufferfish and butterfly fish swim over coral gardens at Palmyra Atoll, where scientists have a new laboratory for climate-change research.

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The Nature Conservancy has built a $1.5 million research station at isolated Palmyra Atoll to serve a research consortium that will study climate change, coral reefs, and invasive species and other environmental threats.

The new facility, with sleeping quarters, laboratories and other facilities in a series of small buildings tucked into the atoll's forest, provides scientists with unique access to a speck of land and coral reef that, except for military activity during World War II, has largely been untouched by humans.

"It's (an ecosystem) that's got all the pieces in place," said Suzanne Case, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i.

Palmyra is a U.S. possession in the Line Islands, just 300 miles north of the equator and 1,100 miles south of Honolulu. It has 450 acres of land on several small islands, and some 480,000 acres of reefs, lagoon and other submerged land.

The atoll has a rainy environment, lying within the intertropical convergence zone. It has long had a Hawai'i connection, since the Fullard-Leo family of Honolulu owned it until it was sold to the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service five years ago.

The service has designated it a national wildlife refuge, for the marine life and seabirds that make the atoll their home.

Palmyra's new wood-frame research facility was built under a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. It has residential facilities in the form of 14 small cottages for up to 28 staff and researchers, a kitchen facility, a separate laboratory complex, a new septic system and diesel-generated electricity.

"We've had scientists down there pretty much year-round, even before it was finished," said oceanographer and climate researcher Rob Dunbar of Stanford University, who is a member of the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium.

The scientific consortium is made up of the University of Hawai'i; Stanford; Scripps Institution of Oceanography; American Museum of Natural History; California Academy of Sciences; University of California-Santa Barbara; University of California-Irvine; U.S. Geological Survey; Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand; and the Nature Conservancy.

Dunbar said Palmyra is useful for climate research in part because it lies in the middle of the area affected by the climate phenomenon known as El Nino. He said researchers can see signs in coral samples of El Nino events thousands of years ago.

"The location of the research station at Palmyra will enable scientists to monitor climate and air-sea interaction in a critical area of the Pacific that is seldom studied," Dunbar said.

"Such knowledge will enable us to better predict how the world's coral reefs will respond to changes in climate, human use and conservation management."

The islands are useful also for scientific research into ecosystems. More than a million seabirds nest on them. Palmyra's warm lagoon and outer reefs have three times the number of coral species found in Hawai'i or the Caribbean. The giant coconut crab, the world's largest land invertebrate, is common there.

Palmyra also has a lot of sharks. Dunbar said that when compared with neighboring Christmas Island, which has a dense human population, Palmyra's marine life is as different as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands reefs are from the main Hawaiian Islands reefs with an abundance of fish and dominance by predators such as sharks.

"There are a lot of whitetips, blacktips and grays, just cruising very gracefully. One day, we were diving at about 90 feet. I did a 360 (complete turn) and I counted 24 sharks," Case said.

The conservancy manages Palmyra from Hawai'i. Maui-based Anders Lyons is its program director.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.