Palmyra research station launched

ROBERT J. SHALLENBERGER palmyra

A new research station has opened on the Palmyra Atoll (above), where an international consortium led by the Nature Conservancy will study climate change, disappearing coral reefs and invasive species.

A new research station has opened its doors on Palmyra Atoll, a ring of tiny islands in the tropical Pacific about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. Stanford climatologists and marine and terrestrial scientists count among an international consortium led by the Nature Conservancy that will use the station to study climate change, disappearing coral reefs and invasive species.

"There's a relatively low level of human disturbance on the outside of the reef and on the fish," said geological and environmental sciences Professor Rob Dunbar, the Victoria P. and Roger W. Sant Director of the Earth Systems Program, who studies climate change by drilling cores from ice sheets and coral reefs. "We think Palmyra Atoll is an analog for how things were before humans exerted pressure."

The new laboratory lies on Cooper Island, the largest of Palmyra's islets. The atoll has seen little development and infrequent human visitors since 1943, when the U.S. military built an air base and packed 3,000 troops on it for six months, Dunbar said.

Built by coral growing on the ring of an ancient submerged volcano, the combined landmass of all of the atoll's islets would fill less than two-thirds of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Annual rainfall can exceed 7 feet, its highest point above sea level.

Lagoons offer sanctuary to bottle-nosed dolphins and green sea turtles. Coconut trees and native ferns pack the islets, also home to one of the last remaining populations of the giant Pisonia tree as well as the coconut crab, a rare hermit crab and the biggest land-dwelling invertebrate in the world. Such biodiversity makes Palmyra an excellent site to study dwindling species and other disturbances in ecosystems, according to the Nature Conservancy website.

While not pristine, the atoll boasts three times as many coral species as Hawaii. Step out of a 17-seat turbo-prop airplane after a three-hour flight from Honolulu and "everything looks different," Dunbar said.

One Stanford research project uses satellite tags to plot movements of manta rays within the lagoons and beyond. In another, researchers use satellite images and don rubber boots to map reefs, sandbars and algal flats. Dunbar's group drills core samples from 200-year-old corals to plot water temperature and rainfall all the way back to when the atoll's namesake, the American ship Palmyra, wrecked on its shores in 1802.

"On the equator by the dateline, the battle between cold water and warm water determines major weather patterns in the Pacific Ocean," Dunbar said. "If you know the water temperature at Palmyra, you know a lot about the major weather force of the Pacific—the El Niño Southern Oscillation."

The Palmyra research consortium also includes scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, University of Hawaii, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, California Academy of Sciences, University of California-Santa Barbara, University of California-Irvine, U.S. Geological Survey and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. The consortium will work in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the atoll as a wildlife refuge.

Krista Zala is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.