The Pacific Remote Island Area (PRIA) includes seven islands located in the Central Pacific that are under the jurisdiction of the United States. Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Islands, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra Atoll (links are to descriptions on this page) lie between Hawai‘i and American Samoa and are administered as National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) of the Dept. of the Interior (DOI). Wake Island, which is located between the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and Guam, is an unincorporated territory of the U.S. that is administered by the DOI and the U.S. Air Force.
The Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED), a part of NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center funded by NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, began Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (RAMP) surveys in the PRIA in 2002. Since that time biennial surveys have been conducted at Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Islands, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra Atoll, (links are to data set pages) and in early 2006 multibeam surveys were done at these six islands. Multibeam mapping was conducted by personnel from PIBHMC and CRED. Surveying was completed in water depths ranging from 15 to 2500 m at Jarvis, Howland, and Baker Islands and ~85% completed at Johnston, Kingman, and Palmyra where some shallow areas (< 30 m) remain unmapped. CRED RAMP surveys were first conducted at Wake in 2005 and multibeam mapping is scheduled there in early 2007.
General references and links for PRIA:
Baker Island is an uninhabited island located at 0°12′ N 176°29′W (revised coordinates based on recent mapping) in the Central Pacific. It is a National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) under the USFWS and public access is by permit only; most permits are issued to scientists and educators. The United States took possession of the island in 1856 under the Guano Islands Act of 1856 and from 1886 to 1934 it was a British Overseas Territory; guano mining was conducted at Baker in the last half of the 1800s until the guano stocks were depleted. There was a brief attempt at colonization at Howland, Jarvis, and Baker Islands from 1935 to 1942 by students and alumnae from Kamehameha School in Hawai‘i.
During World War II the civilian population was evacuated after Japanese air and sea attacks, and Baker was used as a base by the U.S. military. Feral cats were a serious problem until the 1960’s when they were eradicated. The island was established as a NWR under USFWS in 1974.
Baker is a very small island (1.64 sq. km) with 4.8 km of coastline, and its highest point lies approximately 8 m above sea level. Lying just 24 km (13 nautical miles) north of the Equator, it has little rainfall, constant wind and high temperatures. The land is mostly sand with low brush; remnants of the military airstrip are still visible. The island has no fresh water and is primarily a nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat for seabirds, shorebirds, and marine wildlife. The longer axis of the island is oriented in an east-west direction. The narrow fringing reef has limited areas (0.2 – 1 km in width) of shallow (<20 m) bank surrounding it on the north and east sides; on the south and west sides of the island, the flanks drop steeply to oceanic depths within 0.2 km of the reef crest.
Howland Island is an uninhabited island located at 0°48′N 176°37′W (revised coordinates based on recent mapping) in the Central Pacific It is a National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) under the USFWS and public access is by permit only; most permits are issued to scientists and educators. The United States took possession of the island in 1856 under the Guano Islands Act of 1856 and from 1886 to 1934 it was a British Overseas Territory; guano mining was conducted in the last half of the 1800s until guano stocks were depleted. There was a brief attempt at colonization at Howland, Jarvis, and Baker Islands from 1935 to 1942 by students and alumnae from Kamehameha School in Hawai‘i.
The Kamehameha colonists constructed three runways on Howland using WPA (Works Progress Administration) funds as a possible re-fueling station for trans-Pacific flights and for use as a landing site by Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on their round-the-world flight in 1937. Transmission from Earhart and Noonan were received after their departure from New Guinea on July 2, 1937, but they never arrived at Howland Island.
After two colonists were killed in a Japanese air attack on December 8, 1941, and a sea attack on December 10th, Howland Island was evacuated and used as a base by the U.S. military. The island was established as a NWR under USFWS in 1974. Military debris from WWII is an on-going problem; Howland Island is shown as a possible EPA Superfund site.
Howland is a very small, low-lying island (1.84 sq. km) with 6.4 km of coastline Lying just 89 km (48 nautical miles) north of the Equator, it has little rainfall, constant wind and high temperatures. The land is mostly sand with low brush, and remnants of previous buildings are still visible. The island has no fresh water and is primarily a nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat for seabirds, shorebirds, and marine wildlife. The long axis of the island is oriented approximately north-south and the flanks outside the narrow fringing reef drop steeply to oceanic depths on all sides.
Jarvis Island is an uninhabited island located at 0°22′S 160°03′W in the Central Pacific. It is a National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) under the USFWS and public access is by permit only; most permits are issued to scientists and educators. It was discovered on August 21, 1821, by the British ship Eliza Frances) and named for the owners of this vessel, but never occupied by the British. The United States took possession of the island in 1856 under the Guano Islands Act of 1856 and from 1886 to 1934 it was a British Overseas Territory; guano mining was conducted only by the Americans. There was a brief attempt at colonization at Howland, Jarvis, and Baker Islands from 1935 to 1942 by students and alumnae from Kamehameha School in Hawai‘i. The colonists were evacuated by the Coast Guard ship Roger B. Taney in February, 1942, and all buildings on the island were burned to the ground. Jarvis was re-occupied in 1957 during the International Geophysical Year and abandoned in 1958. The island was established as a NWR under USFWS in 1974. Feral cats were a problem until they were eradicated in 1983.
Jarvis is a small island (4.5 sq. km.) and the highest elevation is 8 m. Lying just 41 km (22 nautical miles) south of the Equator, it has little rainfall, constant wind and high temperatures. The land is mostly low sand, and its sparse bunch grass, prostrate vines, and low-growing shrubs are primarily a nesting, roosting, and foraging habitat for seabirds, shorebirds, and marine wildlife. The island has no fresh water. There are steep slopes on all sides outside of the fringing reefs except on the eastern side where a shallow (< 20 m) shelf extends 500-1000 m.
For more information about the history, climate, and environment of Jarvis Island, see the Jarvis Island Home Page.
Johnston Atoll includes 4 islands and a small lagoon and is located at 16°45′N 169°31′W in the Central Pacific, about 885 km (478 nautical miles) south and slightly west of French Frigate Shoals (FFS) in the NWHI. It is a National Wildlife Refuge under the USFWS and public access is by permit only; permits are usually issued for scientists and educators. The atoll was discovered when the American brig Sally ran aground in 1796. The largest island was named Johnston Island for the captain of the frigate HMS Cornwallis from which the island was sighted in 1807. The ownership of the island was claimed by both the United States and Hawai‘i in 1858 with little usage except for sporadic guano mining in the last half of the century. In 1909 Johnston was leased to a private citizen for fifteen years by the Territory of Hawaii. The atoll was first mapped in 1923 during a visit by the U.S.S Wippoorwill and the U.S.S. Tanager for scientific research. In 1926 Johnston and Sand Islands were designated as a federal bird refuge and in 1934, President Roosevelt placed the atoll under U.S. Navy control, but its status as a refuge under DOI was maintained.
In 1941 Johnston Atoll was designated as a Naval Defensive Sea Area and Airspace Reservation and it came under attack by the Japanese in WWII. After WWII, the atoll was used for a variety of military activities including nuclear weapons testing, rocket launches, and chemical and radioactive waste disposal and incineration, and there is a 25-acre landfill on Johnston Island that contains radioactive debris and soils. In the late 20th century, the military and civilian contractor population averaged about 1,100. The atoll is currently unpopulated and under the jurisdiction of the USFWS; a landing strip still exists on Johnston Island. In July, 2006, Johnston Island (only) was listed for sale by the Government Services Association .
Johnston Atoll is the only shallow and emergent land in a large area of ocean, with the nearest emergent land being in the NWHI at FFS. Because of its isolation, Johnston is an oasis for marine and bird life. Recently published research (reference 1) suggests that there may be larval transport between Johnston Atoll and the Hawaiian Archipelago, and further research is being conducted to determine whether Johnston serves as a genetic source for the Hawaiian Archipelago through FFS. Located at 16°45′N, the atoll still lies in the trade wind belt and the climate is tropical, but relatively dry.
There were originally two islands in the atoll, Johnston and Sand. The U.S. Navy did extensive coral dredging to enlarge Johnston and Sand Islands and created two new islands, North and East, thus increasing the total land mass to 2.6 sq. km. A shallow reef on the northern side of the atoll shelters the islands, but there is little emergent reef on the other three sides of the atoll. Geologic research (references 2 and 3) has suggested that Johnston Atoll is tilted with the north side being higher than the south and that structural failure has occurred on the south side of the atoll. Recently completed multibeam bathymetric maps of the atoll’s outer slopes reveal that significant mass wasting has taken place on the south, north and east sides of the atoll, and that the northwest slope of the atoll is relatively intact to a depth of ~1800 m, 8-10 km offshore.
1: Kobayashi, D.R. Colonization of Hawaiian Archipelago via Johnston Atoll: a characterization of oceanographic transport corridors for pelagic larvae using computer simulation. Coral Reefs, DOI 10.1007/s00338-006-0118-5, 2006.)
2: Emery, K.O., Marine geology of Johnston Island and its surrounding shallows, Central Pacific Ocean. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull., 67, 1505-1519, 1956.
3: Keating, B.H., Structural failure and drowning of Johnston Atoll, Central Pacific Basin. Geophysical Monograph 43, Seamounts, Islands, and Atolls. Amer. Geop. Union, 49-59, 1987.
Kingman Reef is a coral reef located at 6°24′N 162°24′W in the Line Islands of the Central Pacific. It lies 61 km (~33 n.m) north of Palmyra Island. It is a National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) under the USFWS public access is by permit only; most permits are issued to scientists and educators. Kingman was discovered in 1789 by Capt. Edmund Fanning of the ship Betsey and described in 1853 by Capt. W.E. Kingman. The island, listed “Danger” island, was claimed by the United States under the Guano Act of 1856. Kingman Reef was formally annexed to the U.S. on May 10, 1922, by agents of the Palmyra Copra Co. In 1926 the Navy ship U.S.S Whippoorwill surveyed Kingman Reef. In 1937 it was made into a U.S. Naval Reservation and the deep interior lagoon was used as a landing site for Pan American seaplanes flying between Hawaii and Samoa in 1937 and 1938. Kingman Reef became a NWR under the DOI in 2001.
Kingman Reef is a coral atoll that is ~8 km wide and ~17 km long. The reef is less than 1 m high and awash much of the time. With this low profile, the atoll is a maritime hazard and numerous ships have gone aground there. There are no terrestrial plants or animals, but the marine life is very abundant and green sea turtles are found on Kingman. The V-shaped lagoon in the middle of Kingman Reef is 90 m deep in places. Recent multibeam bathymetric maps reveal an extensive bank top 80 km to the southwest of Kingman Reef. In addition there are dozens of intriguing conical structures on the outer flanks of the reef that are hypothesized to be of volcanic origin. A few limited survey lines were run inside the lagoon during these surveys.
Palmyra Atoll has the largest land mass of the six islands of the central U.S. Pacific Remote Island Area. It is located at 5°52′N 162°6′W, 61 km (33 n.m.) south of Kingman Reef, and lies in the center of the Line Island chain. Palmyra’s administrative status is unique in that it is owned by a private organization, The Nature Conservancy, but administered by the Office of Insular Affairs, DOI. In 2001 the USFWS established a NWR at Palmyra.
Palmyra also has a somewhat unusual history, compared to the other islands in the PRIA. It was discovered in 1798 by Edmund Fanning and named in 1802 when the ship Palmyra was blown ashore. In 1816 a Spanish pirate ship, which was carrying plunder from Incan temples, was wrecked there. Palmyra was claimed by the United States under the Guano Act of 1859, but no guano mining was done because the rainy weather inhibits the accumulation of guano. In 1862 Zenas Bent and J.B. Wilkinson claimed the island for the Kingdom of Hawaii and were granted rights to the property. In 1898 the Kingdom of Hawaii, including Palmyra Atoll, was annexed by the U.S, but the British had also claimed the island in 1889; therefore in 1911 the U.S. annexed Palmyra a second time. Numerous transfers of private and commercial ownership occurred between 1862 and 1922. In 1922 Palmyra was sold to the Fullard-Leo family by Judge Henry Cooper. During WWI the U.S. Navy used the atoll as a naval air facility. In 1947 the Fullard-Leo family defeated the government’s claim to Palmyra by a U.S. Supreme Court order. Palmyra was specifically excluded from the State of Hawaii when the Territory became a state in 1959, making it the only privately owned territory in the U.S. In 1961 President Kennedy issued an executive order vesting administration of Palmyra to the DOI. In 1974 the atoll became briefly famous when a yachting couple was murdered there, lawyer and author Vincent Bugliosi published And the Sea Will Tell and a television movie was made. Palmyra was sold by the Fullard-Leo family to the Nature Conservancy in 2000. In January of 2001, the USFWS extended further protection to Palmyra when it designated 450 acres of land and 480,647 acres of lagoons, coral reefs and submerged lands and waters as a NWR. The Nature Conservancy established a scientific research station at Palmyra in 2005 with accommodations for up to 20 researchers.
The atoll lies just 652 miles (352 n.m.) north of the Equator and has light, variable winds and a humid tropical climate with an average of 175 inches of rain/yr. The lush vegetation includes coconut trees, native ferns and shrubs, and the last stand of Pisonia beach forest in the U.S. Pacific. Palmyra also has unusually rich biodiversity with 29 avian and 125 coral species documented. Palmyra is a relatively large atoll with extensive reef and 54 islets and bars. The atoll encompasses 12 sq km with two shallow interior lagoons. The recently completed multibeam bathymetric maps of the island reveals steep flanks on all sides outside of the lagoon and a small secondary rise to ~1000 m depths approximately 11 km (6 n.m.) to the west of the atoll.
Wake Island is part of Wake Atoll (also called Eneen-Kio Atoll), which lies about two thirds of the way from Hawaii to the Northern Mariana Islands and is located at 19° 17’ N and 166° 39’ E. It is the northern-most island of the Marshall Island Chain and is currently claimed by the United States, the Marshall Islands, and the Kingdom of EnenKio. The atoll actually consists of three fringing islands, Wake, Wilkes and Peale, which have a total land area of 6.5 sq. km. Wake is currently operated as an airstrip by the U.S. Dept. of Interior (DOI) and the U.S. Air Force. This atoll was discovered by Alvaro de Mendana in 1568, who named it San Francisco and claimed it for Spain. In 1796 Captain Samuel Wake visited the island aboard the Prince William Henry and his name was associated with the main island. The explorer Charles Wilkes and naturalist Titian Peale conducted surveys around the atoll and their names were thereafter associated with the two smaller islands. During the Spanish-American war, Maj. Gen. Frances Greene claimed the island for the United States and in 1899 Comm. Edward Taussig took formal possession of the island. Although it is commonly thought that the subsequent peace treaty transferred the atoll to the U.S., Wake was not specifically mentioned in this Treaty of Paris. In 1923 the U.S.S. Tanager visited the island for two weeks during a famous oceanographic voyage. It is believed that Marshallese seamen visited the atoll periodically in order to collect feathers and plumes of seabirds, wing bones of albatross, and the rare kio flower, the atoll’s namesake, but no evidence has been found of a permanent indigenous population. Wake Atoll was placed under the jurisdiction of the Navy in 1934 and the next year a seaplane base was established there for use by Pan American Airlines’ China Clipper. According to John G. Borger, Pan Am engineer, it was necessary to remove coral heads in the lagoon to a depth six feet in order to provide an open landing area for the seaplanes. A 48-room hotel was built and the atoll became a popular stopover for trans-Pacific Pan Am passengers after 1935 when the first Clipper landed.
The U.S. Navy began to fortify the Atoll in January 1941 when it became clear that war with Japan was probable. The island was first attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 8, 1941, but did not fall until Dec. 23. The island was fiercely defended by only 519 U.S. military personnel with assistance from some of the approximately 1200 contractors on the island, most of whom were Chamorro from Guam. Eighty-one Marines, eight sailors and 82 civilian contractors were killed or wounded, while the Japanese lost almost 1000 men, two destroyers, a submarine, and 21 airplanes and suffered damage to seven additional ships in the attack on Wake. The Japanese took over the atoll and transferred 1221 Prisoners of War (POW) to Japan aboard a converted luxury liner. About one quarter of the civilian contractors remained on the island and 98 remaining prisoners were executed in October 1943. The island was repeatedly bombed by aircraft in 1942 and 1943 and was blockaded in summer of 1943, but no land assault was attempted. After Japan’s overall surrender two days earlier, Brigadier Gen. Sanderson accepted the surrender of Japanese forces on Wake on Sept. 4, 1945.
In 1949 the U.S. built a 2133 m (7000 ft.) paved runway, which has subsequently been lengthened to 3047 m. Wake Atoll has been used as a refueling stop by the U.S. military ever since WWII, and between 100-150 U.S. Air Force and contracting maintenance personnel remain on the island. Typhoons have struck the island repeatedly, including Olive (1952 – 180 mph), Sarah (1967 – 104 mph), Freda (1981 – 75 mph), and Ioke (2006 – 155 mph). Each of these typhoons caused significant damage and required subsequent reconstruction. In 1975 about 15,000 Vietnamese refugees passed through Wake Island.
Geologically, Wake Atoll is the northernmost of the Gilbert-Marshall Island chain and lies on some of the oldest seafloor in the world (< 160 Ma). No age dates are available for Wake Atoll, but Enewetak (Anewetak, Eniwetok), one of the closest of the other Marshall Islands, has been dated at 75.84-76.26 Ma. The Gilbert-Marshall chain is located on what is called the Darwin Rise, a large area of seafloor in the Central Pacific that is anomalously shallow for its age. Multibeam data show that Wake Atoll drops off steeply on all sides from 20 to 500 m and almost vertically at the NW corner, after the initial flat area in less than 25 m depth. No shelf structures occur between 25 and 300 m that would indicate previous sea level stands. However, the ridge that extends out from the SE corner of the island has a relatively low slope in depths greater than 500 m and, from nautical charts, appears to extend over 22 km to the east. Evidence of mass wasting is seen on the south and east sides of the island in 2000-3500 m water depths.