Living in Paradise on the Palmyra Atoll The Palmyra Atoll has no indigenous population, making it ideal for scientific research. Those who work there live in rustic conditions amid what comes close to being the ideal tropical paradise.

Living in Paradise on the Palmyra Atoll

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This is DAY TO DAY. A last look at the tropical paradise that is a natural lab to study climate change. Back to Palmyra, I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand.

Wait, Alex, first, what happened to that jaunty climate change music?

CHADWICK: Well, there's actually less science in the story that I want to tell you today. Listen, people asked me for the favorite place that I've been - there isn't one - but Palmyra really is remarkable. And everyone I tell about it wants to know what's it like.

(Soundbite of tropical jungle sounds)

CHADWICK: It's not a thousand miles from nowhere, but it is that far from the nearest place you can reasonably get — Hawaii. And distance bestows a kind of grace. The detritus of civilization spreads away from the great land masses maybe like a stain. And Palmyra, almost dead center in the Pacific Ocean, is about the last place it reaches.

(Soundbite of water)

Dr. ROBERT DUNBAR (Professor of Geological and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University): You know, it looks like the more intact community. And it's closer to what we think reefs were like before men's impact started to become more severe and so…

CHADWICK: Rob Dunbar, a Stanford professor and researcher.

Dr. DUNBAR: This is one of the few places on the planet where you could study a true climate change signal and see what it does to corral reefs. That's one of the drawing cards for a lot of the scientists that work here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: A non-profit group, the Nature Conservancy, bought Palmyra seven years ago. With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it manages the atoll as a site for science and conservation. There's a small staff to support the 15 or 20 researchers who come for a week or a month or more.

We have lots of pictures at so you can see the place for yourself. And here, these are some notes that I've recorded.

(Soundbite of bird sounds)

CHADWICK: People used to stay in tents here, but a couple of years ago, the conservancy built more than a dozen simple wooden sleeping cabins with small front porches and plastic corrugated windows propped open with sticks; screens in place to keep out the insects. There is power here in every cabin, lights and a fan overhead. All this is connected to a generator down the way.

(Soundbite of generator)

CHADWICK: There's a laundry.

(Soundbite of laundry)

CHADWICK: Showers.

(Soundbite of toilet)

CHADWICK: Flush toilets. They actually have a septic system here.

Unidentified Woman: Grilled tuna with cilantro vines and lemon rice.

CHADWICK: A full galley with a cook or chef maybe.

Unidentified Woman: Wine and cheese bread and warm cherry pie ala mode for dessert.

CHADWICK: There's a full scientific lab, the only building on the island that's air-conditioned. It's got a dehumidifier in it, too. The scientists can keep their equipment dry in there; and 24-hour Internet access back home. And someone to keep all this running, a man named Tommy Adkins.

So you're the maintenance engineer, you have to take care of everything. What is there to take care of on Palmyra?

Mr. TOMMY ADKINS (Maintenance Engineer, Palmyra): It sounds like there wouldn't be a whole lot, but you've got a small power plant, you've got your sewage and waste treatment. So for one person, on a good day, it's just maintaining and making sure everything's running correctly. On a bad day, three or four things have hiccups and need repair, and usually they all need repair at once.

(Unidentified Man): (Unintelligible) you, guys. I will be up in 10 minutes, max.

CHADWICK: Everything comes in by ship or chartered plane, so they try to supplement the menu with local fish and that task, too, falls to Tommy Adkins.

You are said to be the best fisherman in the camp so when they need someone to go out and catch a fish, which they do two or three times a week, you go.

Mr. ADKINS: It's easy to say I'm the best fisherman when there's only about 10 of us here.

(Soundbite of motorboat)

CHADWICK: We take a boat and go looking for tuna. They are outside the lagoon - 60, 70, 80 pounds. Tommy hand-lines one that spits the hook as we try to get it on board - it's gone. But it leaves a kind of an underwater alarm because seconds later, a big shark cruises by. But that big tuna, that fish got away from both of us.

How can I go there? That's what people want to know about Palmyra. You can join the list of would-be Nature Conservancy volunteers to work there, and they do hire some skilled people like Tommy, or you can be a researcher, or a very lucky student.

Unidentified Man: Hey, on the foredecks set the top sail.

CHADWICK: The Robert Seamans, a schooner owned by the Sea Education Association and chartered by Stanford for a marine studies seminar.

(Soundbite of students diving into sea)

CHADWICK: And I mean, really, in the sea, the students dive here led by field scientists that study in the place for years.

Dr. DUNBAR: We call it Spaceship Palmyra.

CHADWICK: That's Professor Dunbar. We heard from him earlier.

Dr. DUNBAR: I mean, it sits out here, one of the most isolated islands on the planet.

CHADWICK: And that is what makes it both a scientific treasure and a traveler's curiosity. So, you don't have time to go back to school, there is another way: The Nature Conservancy depends on the generosity of donors. To the most generous of them, it offers rewards beyond tote bags. An official declined comment, but I'm guessing mid-six figures. For that, you double bunk in a small, sweep-it-yourself cabin. The shared bath is a couple of 100 feet away. But go if you can, you'll find more than you expect.

And here's a tip — a final field note — before you go to bed at Palmyra, shake out the bedclothes. Last night, I found two brown spiders, the size of silver dollars, in the folds of the spread.

(Soundbite of tropical jungle sounds)

CHADWICK: Our Climate Connection series on Palmyra was produced by Steve Proffitt and edited by Martha Little. Special thanks to Marc Schwartz of Stanford University. He shot some great video. You can see it on our Web site,; and to Tommy Adkins, his photographs are there as well.

Climate Connections is a joint project of NPR News and the National Geographic Society. And the series theme music was written and performed by David Was.

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