NPR logo Series Overview: Exploring the Palmyra Atoll

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Series Overview: Exploring the Palmyra Atoll

The Palmyra Atoll

The Palmyra Atoll's pristine environment helps scientists understand the effects of global-scale climate change. Courtesy of Tommy Adkins hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Tommy Adkins

Essay on Palmyra Atoll

NPR senior producer Steve Proffitt recounts the experience of reporting from the Palmyra Atoll. In this essay, he describes the atoll as "a tiny, magic string of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean."

Palmyra Atoll, a collection of tiny islands in the middle of the central Pacific Ocean, is key for some scientists looking to understand the systems that make up our natural world.

Day to Day host Alex Chadwick and producer Steve Proffitt spent a week on the atoll last summer, talking with researchers working there, and learning about why this atoll, so isolated and untouched, plays such a large role in this research.

Since 2000, Palmyra Atoll has been owned and managed by a private foundation, The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintains a 12-mile no-fishing zone around the islands. The conservancy has established a research camp on the atoll, which supports scientists who visit in groups of about a dozen at a time.

This four-part series explores the unique aspects of the island region, including natural ecosystems, sharks and seabirds – and what it might teach humans about climate change.

Part 1 of the series explains why Palmyra's isolation, and the fact that it has never had an indigenous human population, makes it an ideal scientific laboratory. Researchers here are able to study natural ecosystems, and the possible effects of climate change, in a place that may be as pristine as any on Earth.

The lagoons surrounding the atoll are teaming with coral and fish, including huge populations of sharks, which thrive in the food-rich environment. Part 2 of the series explains how scientists track the sharks, and learn how they are being effected by climate change.

The heavily wooded islands of the atoll support a variety of seabird colonies, including one of the largest colonies of Red-footed Boobies in the world. Part 3 follows two scientists who have to work at night so they can catch birds while they sleep. The researchers can then track the birds and learn more about their feeding habits and how they might be reacting to changes in climate.

And the island offers a variety of other curiosities, such as huge coconut crabs, some the size of footballs, and enormous Manta Rays, several of which visit the dock at the camp each night, drawn there by the lights. Part 4 explores what life is like for the people who live and work at the research facility in Palmyra Atoll, which comes very close to being the ideal tropical paradise.

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