Follow the scientists on their expedition with daily dispatches from the field and discover this unique marine wilderness.
"Four hundred miles (644 kilometers) north of Fiji, 30-knot winds, 12-foot (3.7-meter) seas, meals served in bowls, waves and spray continuously wash over the starboard side of the vessel, a challenge to take a shower, walk or even sleep as you have to compensate for your body being thrown this way and that by the erratic motion of the sea…a few people are seasick and lying mostly in their bunks; others sit where they can, lie where they can, and eat when and what they can. We are passing through the inter-tropical convergence zone." Read more >>
For Conservation International's (CI) Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist for Oceans Dr. Greg Stone and his team, the trip was worth the hardship. After all, there's no other way to reach one of the world's most pristine stretches of ocean – the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA).
In this bountiful yet little studied corner of the world, new research is advancing our knowledge of the effects of climate change on oceans and paving the way for marine conservation efforts worldwide.
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A Threatened Paradise
The island nation of Kiribati is composed of three island chains – the Gilbert, Line and Phoenix Islands – located about halfway between Fiji and Hawaii. The mostly uninhabited Phoenix Islands and their surrounding reefs provide a rare glimpse into the abundant biodiversity that can flourish in the absence of human impacts.
Scientists have identified around 160 types of coral and about 520 fish species in the region, including some species new to science and others, such as the threatened Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), in record numbers. The reefs are also part of an important migration route for the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) – listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List – while the islands provide nesting sites for tens of thousands of seabirds.
MAP: See the Phoenix Islands on a map.
To protect these incredible waters, the government of Kiribati, the New England Aquarium and CI collaborated to establish PIPA as the world's largest marine protected area (MPA) in 2008. At almost 410,000 square kilometers (almost 255,000 square miles – about the size of California), PIPA includes eight atolls and the surrounding lagoons and reefs, two submerged reef systems, and deep-sea and open ocean environments – one of the world's only MPAs that contains such a wide range of habitats.
Leading the Way
Although the effects of climate change have been observed in PIPA's marine ecosystems, the global issue may pose a more immediate threat to the people of Kiribati than its biodiversity. Kiribati's population of approximately 113,000 is already experiencing effects such as drought, sea level rise and the salinization of drinking water.
Yet despite their negligible contribution to the causes of climate change, the islands' people have already taken great lengths to fight the problem through the establishment of PIPA. The lack of other destructive environmental factors within PIPA provides a unique opportunity for scientists to use the region as a model for understanding the effects of climate change in the absence of other human influences.
In the past few months alone, expanding collaboration with international governments and organizations is helping to further secure the livelihoods of the region's human and animal residents.
The governments of Kiribati and the U.S. signed a "sister site" agreement for PIPA and Hawaii's Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. This agreement will serve as a framework for coordinating conservation efforts for large marine areas worldwide. As "sister sites," the MPAs agree to share research and information and create a joint strategy for dealing with climate change and other challenges. Together, the parks cover about 770,325 square kilometers (almost 480,000 square miles – more than twice the size of Montana), 25 percent of the world's total MPA territory.
In September, Dr. Stone's team embarked on a three-week trip to assess the effects of climate change on PIPA's biodiversity and ecosystems. Despite the rough travel conditions he cites, the expedition included a ready band of scientists, researchers and photographers from CI, the New England Aquarium, National Geographic and other partners. After more than 400 SCUBA dives, the team found that there has been rapid recovery in coral cover since the coral bleaching of 2002-2003 – attributed to the effects of El Niño and thought to be exacerbated by climate change. This finding supports the claim that intact ecosystems are more resilient to climate change.
Due to its remarkable marine life, PIPA has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dr. Stone's expedition contributed data to support its nomination, and an evaluation team from IUCN also visited Kiribati this fall. The final decision will be announced in June 2010.
The wonders that PIPA holds may not be easy to reach, but the insights they are providing about global climate change make the trip well worth it. Increasing international recognition will rally more support for the continued protection of one of the Earth's most spectacular treasures.
READ MORE: Adapting to Climate Change (Part I)