USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center Project: Palmyra Atoll: WWII Naval Air Station Contaminant Impacts on Terrestrial and Marine Ecosystems within the USFWS National Wildlife Refuge

passive samplers deployed at PalmyraFunding Program: Contaminant Biology

Statement of Problem: BACKGROUND ON PALMYRA: Palmyra is a remote atoll located in the US Line Islands about 1000 nautical miles south of Hawaii (5º53'N, 162º5'W). Palmyra's lagoons, coral reefs, intertidal zones, and terrestrial ecosystems support a diversity of fish and wildlife. Palmyra Atoll consists of a ring of about 50 islets with several lagoons, surrounded by 15,000 acres of both shallow and deep submerged reefs. In 2001, the waters and reefs within 12 nautical miles of the atoll became the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. About three fourths of the emergent land belongs to USFWS, with the rest owned (since 2000) by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The atoll's 680 acres of emergent lands are densely covered with a variety of tropical plants. Palmyra's coral reefs are among the most diverse and pristine in the world. The atoll provides habitat for many species of nesting seabirds, one of the last Pisonia forests in the U.S. Pacific, the coconut crab (Birgus latro), and the endangered green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). THE PROBLEM: The atoll's terrestrial, lagoon, and coastal landscapes were drastically modified in the early 1940¿s by the U.S. government's development of the atoll as a U.S. Naval Air Station (housing 3000 troops). The many islets of the atoll were connected with coral and sediment dredged from the lagoon. Several islets including Strawn, Menge, and Cooper were connected to form 222-acre Cooper Island, the largest single island of the atoll, which served as the Naval Air Station Base and today is the base for TNC and USFWS on Palmyra. Following WWII, much of the Naval Air Station was dismantled, with some materials piled and burned on the atoll, dumped into the lagoon, or as is the case of unexploded ordnances (UXOs) on some of the islets, left in place.

Objectives: The goal of the USGS-CERC research effort is to describe potential ecological threats associated with chemical contaminants that may be present in Palmyra Atoll's terrestrial, intertidal, lagoon, and coral reef environments. We have set out to create an annotated geospatial digital map of known and potential sources of toxic elements and selected organic chemical contaminants of Palmyra Atoll. As part of our overall Palmyra ecosystem assessment goal, we assisted two other USGS coral reef studies: 1) virtual fish passive sampling of water in reef areas as part of an Asian dust study, and 2) measure elements (focusing on iron) in sediment and the corallimorph at the longliner ship wreck. During our research study on Palmyra, we obtained approval from USFWS to modify of our Special Use Permit (SUP) to allow us to investigate contaminant levels in subsistence-caught fish and to conduct detailed elemental and organic chemical analysis of soils from selected areas.
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