a juvenile blacktip reef shark on the flats south of Quail Island, Palmyra Atoll.
blacktip shark fin a juvenile blacktip reef shark on the flats south of Quail Island, Palmyra Atoll. © Tim Calver / The Nature Conservancy

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Palmyra Atoll

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Palmyra: Past is Prologue

With the support of a core group of visionary conservation champions, TNC purchased Palmyra Atoll in 2000 to protect an endangered marine wilderness and establish a platform for applied conservation science.

TNC’s commitment to Palmyra was richly rewarded as it rapidly became a focal point for scientists from the world’s leading research institutions, and the atoll itself played a key role in inspiring the creation of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

lies within a National Wildlife Refuge protected out to 50 nautical miles.
Palmyra Atoll lies within a National Wildlife Refuge protected out to 50 nautical miles. © Alex Wegmann

Today, Palmyra is a TNC preserve within a National Wildlife Refuge and further protected—out to 50 nautical miles—by the national monument, the largest collection of ocean and islands protected under a single jurisdiction in the world. With most local threats managed, Palmyra’s atoll ecosystem is well positioned for adaptation and resilience in response to climate impacts.

The science here is as spectacular as the habitat protected by it, including globally significant work on El Niño patterns that led to a breakthrough in understanding human impacts on tropical marine ecosystems.

Now, as Palmyra enters its third decade under conservation management, TNC’s ambitious global goals and priorities—and the urgency of climate change—bring this storied atoll’s global scientific value into newly sharpened focus.

With coastal erosion, sea-level rise, ocean warming and other impacts intensifying, low-lying coral islands like Palmyra are on the front line of global climate change. At Palmyra, TNC aims to provide other Pacific atolls with a model for understanding the essential elements keeping reefs healthy and transferring that knowledge to similar places to help reduce impacts.

A blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus) at Palmyra Atoll, a spectacular marine wilderness area. TNC bought Palmyra in 2000; today, it's a national marine monument.
Blacktip shark A blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus) at Palmyra Atoll, a spectacular marine wilderness area. TNC bought Palmyra in 2000; today, it's a national marine monument. © Tim Calver

Palmyra’s rainforest once dominated the atoll, but copra farming, black rats and deforestation by the U.S. military during World War II reduced it to a few patches. In its stead are thick groves of introduced coconut palms ill-suited for seabirds. Rats were eradicated from Palmyra in 2011, igniting a resurgence of native bird and plant life.  A major native rainforest restoration project is underway. When completed, it will flip forest dominance and restore ecological balance to the atoll, maximizing the seabird-driven nutrient cycle and increasing terrestrial and marine ecosystem resilience to climate change impacts.

As the world continues to face significant questions about how to manage, mitigate and adapt to the impacts of a changed and changing climate, TNC created the Climate Adaptation + Resilience Laboratory (CA+RL) at Palmyra Atoll to refine, amplify and accelerate the application of TNC’s nature-based solutions to challenges and places far beyond Palmyra.

Because Climate Change Needs Applied Science on a Global Scale

TNC’s Climate Adaptation + Resilience Lab at Palmyra Atoll

Launched in 2018, TNC’s Climate Adaptation + Resilience Laboratory (affectionately known as CA+RL), builds on the strong foundation of past applied conservation science at Palmyra and has three key focus areas designed to provide actionable solutions to global challenges for a world experiencing the increasing effects of climate change.

Drew Harvell photographs a tabulate coral with growth anomaly disease from Palmyra Atoll.
Photographing diseased coral Drew Harvell photographs a tabulate coral with growth anomaly disease from Palmyra Atoll. © Bette Willis / Crazy Corals

“At Palmyra, we can say, ‘here’s what a healthy reef looks like, these are the processes, this is what we need to understand about all reefs.’ TNC’s Climate Adaptation + Resilience Laboratory at Palmyra Atoll is a rare and vital opportunity for scientists to really understand coral reefs and use that knowledge to help restore and conserve reefs around the world.”

— Dr. Mark Hay, Regents Professor and Harry and Linda Teasley Chair in the School of Biological Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology

FOCUS: Learning from Healthy Coral Reefs

Palmyra Atoll is of global significance for coral reef research—especially in the face of climate change. It is one of the only marine environments that is spectacularly intact but also offers facilities to support experimental research on healthy coral reef and coastal ecosystems. Palmyra is a perfect place to study climate resilience and adaptation.

Other locations have facilities, but their reefs and coastal habitat are not free of near-universal anthropogenic stressors. With an absence of current, local human impacts and access to one of the world’s healthiest coral reef ecosystems, TNC and its partners are uniquely positioned to investigate the critical driving factors of coral reef health.

Palmyra’s fringing coral reefs are the engine that drive the health and stability of the islands themselves. The complex interplay among the native island rainforest, the reefs, seabirds and fish provide an ideal living laboratory for investigations focused on climate adaptation and resilience.

on Palmyra Atoll
Red-footed booby on Palmyra Atoll © Andrew Wright

FOCUS: Preserving Biodiversity for Resilience in a Changing World

Islands are powerful proving grounds for conservation and biodiversity solutions in an era of unprecedented global change.

CARL provides TNC and global partners a unique experimental arena for developing applied scientific, practical and policy-focused approaches to preventing species extinctions and ecosystem collapse in an increasingly novel and human-dominated world.

Right now, TNC is working with partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to derive lessons and best practices to maximize Palmyra’s resilience in the face of climate change by restoring the native rainforest, reintroducing and rewilding endangered bird species and eradicating introduced mosquitoes. These conservation actions are intended to preserve biodiversity at Palmyra and throughout Oceania at time when diversity of life is one of the best safeguards against climate impacts to island ecosystems.

 A marine monitoring and research team studies coral reefs and reef life at Palmyra Atoll.
A marine monitoring and research team studies coral reefs and reef life at Palmyra Atoll. © Tim Calver

FOCUS: Measuring the Effectiveness of Sustainable Fisheries Strategies

Palmyra represents a near-perfect site for an investigation of blue water marine protected area (BWMPA) impacts and efficacy. The waters surrounding Palmyra (out to 50 nautical miles) are part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument—a large blue water MPA closed to commercial fishing.

Palmyra’s nearshore waters are rarely fished, creating an ideal place to study fish species commercially harvested for subsistence or fished recreationally in association with tourism throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

Because of the unprecedented protected status afforded to the waters surrounding Palmyra, the results from our blue water BWMPA studies and coastal fisheries studies will inform the conservation of pelagic species and the sustainable management of commercially valuable fish populations, including tuna, and protection of pelagic species throughout the Pacific.

Drawing by Adi Khen
Rainforest and Reefs Connection The connection between seabirds and healthy coral reefs is a great example of the interdependence of rainforest and reef habitats. © Drawing by Adi Khen

FOCUS:  RAINFORESTS AND REEFS

Palmyra’s rainforest and surrounding coral reefs are interdependent ecosystems. The rainforest is preferred nesting habitat for hundreds of thousands of seabirds, which deposit guano that enriches the soil. The guano is then flushed into the ocean by rain, delivering important nutrients that increase the resilience of the atoll’s coral reef ecosystem.

Palmyra Atoll 360° Experience some of its unbelievable beauty and biodiversity.