On Palmyra, Paradise Doubles as Research Lab The Palmyra Atoll is an isolated island 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. Because of the atoll's remote location and lack of native human population, changes in its environment may reflect global-scale changes. Scientists look to the island for clues on our planet's future.
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On Palmyra, Paradise Doubles as Research Lab

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On Palmyra, Paradise Doubles as Research Lab

On Palmyra, Paradise Doubles as Research Lab

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From fires to climate change. Madeleine, this week we have a series of climate stories from a little patch of paradise. You recognize this - the theme music for our Climate Connections series with National Geographic. But let us swap that tone...

(Soundbite of scratching record)

CHADWICK: ...for this one.

(Soundbite of "Jaws" theme music)


"Jaws," the most overused production (unintelligible) in history?

CHADWICK: Okay. It's familiar but it is so right for where I'm taking you. The middle of the Pacific Ocean and a tiny ring of islets that make up an atoll called Palmyra. It's almost on the equator about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii.

Last summer, producers Steve Proffitt and I left Honolulu on a small charter plane and flew for hours through a world made entirely of blue, until it turned dark gray.

Unidentified Woman: There's a little bit at more clouds, so we're going to circle back around.

CHADWICK: A Pacific storm makes the Palmyra airstrip definitely dicey. It's made of coral rubble bulldozed together by naval engineers called Seabees during World War II.

(Soundbite of airplane landing)

CHADWICK: At last the reassuring ground and a welcome that's as warm as the steady rain.


BRAD: How are you doing? I'm Brad.

PROFFITT: Brad, I'm Steve. This is Alex. We're with NPR.

CHADWICK: And getting off the plane with us: a dozen field biologists. These are bird people, fish people, shark people. They come because Palmyra doesn't just look like a tropical paradise; its unique history means it actually is one.

This is one of the best places in the world to study nature and climate change. And this week in our reports from Palmyra, life in the field as a scientist.

Mr. ANDERS LYONS (Manager, The Nature Conservancy): Palmyra is uniquely situated in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, a place where the northern and the southern trade winds meet.

CHADWICK: That's Anders Lyons of The Nature Conservancy. The group bought Palmyra seven years ago. It cost about $30 million. The actual land part is not even one square mile. And even so, Anders will tell you, this was a bargain.

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

(Soundbite of birds)

Dr. BORIS WORM (Ocean Species Expert): Just the richness of it. It's so full of life, in a way that it's sometimes hard to imagine.

CHADWICK: Scientist like one of the world's leading experts on ocean species, Boris Worm.

Dr. WORM: And it provides a glimpse for us, I think, in what is possible.

CHADWICK: Or maybe it's more like what was possible and no longer is, almost anywhere but here.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

CHADWICK: In the waters just outside the lagoon are wild undersea forests of coral and fish and enormous winged rays and sharks - many, many sharks.

Professor CHRIS LOWE (California State University): My guess, it's probably in the order of 100,000 or more.

CHADWICK: That is Chris Lowe. He's a researcher for Cal State University at Long Beach. He's a shark authority. And I'm talking to him inside the lab building on Palmyra. This is the one place here that's dry enough for electronics. Chris developed a battery-powered shark tag that can record their movements and capture data like water temperature. First, though, you do need the sharks.

Dr. LOWE: We've already tagged well over a couple hundred blacktip reef sharks and that's using very little effort and very little time, and we re-capture very few.

CHADWICK: What's the largest shark that you've seen around here, off - off outside the atoll?

Dr. LOWE: Just on the couple of dives that I've done in the outside part of the reef as soon as we jumped in the water a couple of nine to ten foot scalloped hammerheads swim right up to us and then kind of checked us out and swam away.

BRAND: Alex, I am so proud of you that you did not use the "Jaws" theme right there.

CHADWICK: Right. Well, Palmyra is so good for sharks, it's like a shark spa. They don't seem to care or even get very curious about the occasional human bobbing in the lagoon. But if the sharks knew what Chris Lowe is thinking about now, maybe they'd be more interested, because even in shark world the climate is changing.

Dr. LOWE: We really don't know what to expect in terms of how organisms are going to respond. And one of the challenges that 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 and their roles. So understanding how that's going to change - with a changing climate - is something that is completely new to us.

CHADWICK: We'll go shark hunting with Chris tomorrow. Don't worry, no sharks are actually hurt in the production of this program, though one is a little surprised.

And later we'll spend long, dark, soggy hours trying to retrieve some very expensive electronics that have been attached to wandering boobies, which are birds.

Unidentified Man #1: This is not a scientific observation, but it's raining like hell.


Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. Well, don't seem to mind and when you have to get equipments back, you have to work in the rain. That's part of the deal.

CHADWICK: And here is our deal: pictures, video, sounds. We have got this place covered at npr.org.

But paradise looks like it does because it gets 175 inches of rain every year, so bring an umbrella.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And do remember, we have got amazing pictures and motion pictures - yes, video - from Palmyra Atoll. It is at our Web site, npr.org.

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