On Palmyra, Paradise Doubles as Research Lab

The Palmyra Atoll  seen from a plane. i i

The Palymra Atoll, as seen from a plane, is a lagoon surrounded by coral. Courtesy of Tommy Adkins hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Tommy Adkins
The Palmyra Atoll  seen from a plane.

The Palymra Atoll, as seen from a plane, is a lagoon surrounded by coral.

Courtesy of Tommy Adkins
The atoll i i

The atoll has no native human population, allowing scientists to observe its natural systems with minimal traces of human interference. Alex Chadwick, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Chadwick, NPR
The atoll

The atoll has no native human population, allowing scientists to observe its natural systems with minimal traces of human interference.

Alex Chadwick, NPR

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Alex Chadwick talks about the beauty that attracts him to the Palmyra Atoll. Credit: Mark Shwartz, Stanford News Service/Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford.

Scientists come to Palmyra Atoll, a tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean, because it is one of the best places in the world to study nature — and climate change.

"Palmyra," says Anders Lyons of The Nature Conservancy, "is uniquely situated in the inter-tropical convergent zone, a place where the northern and southern trade winds meet."

The Nature Conservancy bought Palmyra, a tiny island south of Hawaii, seven years ago for $30 million. Lyons says it was a bargain.

A Unique Setting

Because Palmyra is so isolated, it's not affected by other land masses. There has never been a native population — no one fished out the lagoon, and nobody cut down all of the trees or killed all of the birds — so nature's systems have remained intact. The only people in the area are the few staff for the research station, and the scientists who come to study.

"It's so full of life, in a way that is sometimes hard to imagine," says Boris Worm, one of the world's leading experts on ocean species.

Imagine a lagoon with water so blue that it seems like it can't possibly be real. Or a colony of birds, called sooty terns, spreading over acres. Tens of thousands of birds are gathered here, nesting on the ground, tending their eggs and chicks.

Help from Sharks

In the waters just outside the lagoon are wild undersea forests of coral. And dense within them lives the wildlife of the sea — fish, enormous winged rays and sharks.

There are perhaps 100,000 sharks in these waters, says Chris Lowe, a researcher and authority on sharks from California State University at Long Beach.

Lowe developed a battery-powered shark tag that can record their movements and capture data such as water temperature. But sharks are needed to make the system work, of course, which is why he's here.

Palmyra is so good for sharks, it's like a shark spa. The blacktip and grey reef sharks don't seem bothered by the tagging; they don't even seem to get very curious about the occasional human bobbing in the lagoon.

But if the sharks knew what Lowe is thinking about, maybe they'd be more interested. The natural state of Palmyra makes it an excellent place to study climate developments — and even in shark land, things are going to change.

"We really don't know what to expect, in terms of how organisms are going to respond," Lowe says. "And one of the challenges we've had with sharks, and many other species, is that we're really scratching the surface in terms of what we understand about their ecology. So understanding how that's going to change — with a changing climate — is something that is completely new to us."

Radio piece produced by Steve Proffitt.