Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bush protects remote Pacific Islands

Maribo began last year with an "elevator figure" describing the threat that climate change poses to the world's coral reefs. This year, we'll begin with some good news.

In a decision that has drawn widespread applause from scientists and conservationists, and had a lot of reporters scrambling for an atlas, the outgoing US President used a century-old antiquities law to create three huge marine protected areas or "national monuments" out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Two of the monuments protect the Marianas Trench, offshore of the Northern Marianas Islands, and Rose Atoll, an isolated atoll north of American Samoa. The third, grouped together as the "Pacific Remote Islands", includes the water around seven "islands": Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll, Wake Island, Johnston Atoll, Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Island

These places are probably only be known to WWII buffs, marine scientists or members of the military -- they are almost all either off limits to non-military personnel (e.g. Johnston), uninhabited (Rose), or uninhabitable (landless Kingman). But these islands, especially the Pacific Remote Islands, are exciting to scientists.

Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll were the subjects of an extensive biological survey co-ordinated by colleagues at Scripps and National Geographic a couple years ago. Kingman is generally considered "pristine"; the survey found an "inverted" food web, dominated by large predators like sharks, thanks to the lack of human pressure and also to favourable currents.

While Kingman and Palmyra have more of the fanfare, I'd bet that Howland, Baker and Jarvis could prove to be just as important. They lie closer to the equator, in an area more directly affected by the El Nino / Southern Oscillation. Thanks to tempermental El Nino, the surface waters in the area can be highly variable, at least by equatorial standards. The reefs may - that is may, not will - help us better understand if and how corals can acclimate or adapt to heat stress (not that this is mentioned in the lengthy White House press release).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why other than the stated 'save the coral' PR stuff. I cannot help but to look for the Untold Future Other and National Security reasons for this last minute act by President Bush. veterandoc