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Climate change threatens Rose Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

One of the biggest impacts of climate change will be on islands and coastal regions. That includes Rose Atoll Marine National Monument, an uninhabited island and protected sanctuary for dozens of wildlife species in the equatorial Pacific’s U.S. territory of American Samoa. Mike Taibbi reports as part of our "Samoan Islands: Shifting Tides" series with Pacific Islanders in Communications support.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There's general agreement that one of the biggest impacts from climate change will be on the coastal regions and islands that coexist with the seas. Islands like a tiny speck of a place in the equatorial pacific called Rose Atoll in the U.S.-administered territory of American Samoa. It is a place few humans have set foot, now a protected sanctuary for dozens of wildlife species that have rested and nested and raised their young there for generations.

    As part of our "Samoan Islands: Shifting Tides" series, Special Correspondent Mike Taibbi joined a team from the department of fish and wildlife service to see how Rose is doing and might do in the near and distant future as climate change marches on. Reporting for this story is supported by Pacific Islanders in Communications.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Approaching Rose Atoll, it doesn't look like an island, really, more like a faint smudge on the horizon, not much to it at all. But then you enter the lagoon through a narrow opening in the surrounding reef, you make out some trees, you notice the green sea turtles weighing hundreds of pounds lolling or coupling in the waters around your boat and then you see, and hear this!

    It is an incessant riot of sound and a dizzying sight. Tens of thousands of birds, perhaps a hundred thousand or more on some days, circling or diving or traveling to and from their foraging expeditions so they can feed the next generation.

  • Brian Peck:

    Here these clothes have already been frozen and they're sealed.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Before we embarked on our trip to Rose, we were briefed by host Brian Peck, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife environmental management specialist who's been one of the most frequent human visitors to one of the least visited places on the planet.

  • Brian Peck:

    The risk, as with the quarantine clothes and freezing that we try and prevent, is the introduction of an invasive species.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    In this case, "quarantine" meaning clothes we've kept in a freezer for at least 48 hours to kill off any invasive species.

    How do we know that we're not carrying some sort of bacteria, in our hair, on our body?

  • Brian Peck:

    Bacteria, that's hard to prevent against. We're really concerned about seeds and that's why we bring new clothes out to Rose, and then insects, and that's why we freeze them.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    From American Samoa's capital of Tutuila, it's a 180 mile eastward passage to Rose Atoll, making it the southernmost point of the United States… sorry, Key West.

    How many times has it been now, by your count?

  • Brian Peck:

    You know I've lost count, or I don't keep count. But I would say 15 to 18 times.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And each time, whether accompanied by other scientists or experts or by educators and students or journalists, he has his assembled team take Rose's temperature, literally and figuratively.

  • Avei Fua:

    I was so shocked when Brian emailed me that I got the spot to come here so I was pretty excited!

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Aveipepa Fua, she goes by Avei, a marine science student at American Samoa Community College and aspiring marine biologist, helps him set temperature loggers in the warming lagoon waters and on land as well.

  • Avei:

    Snorkeling outside the channel was pretty amazing, I've never seen so much CCA, crustose coralline algae.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    That "crustose coralline algae" gives the coral reef a distinctive rose hue and the island its name. And in a series of snorkeling surveys she and we observe the sharks and other native species and note the level of coral bleaching caused by warming waters that helps describe the health of the reef. So far, so good.

  • Brian Peck:

    Today we saw several species of sharks and many of them. So that's a sign of a healthy ecosystem, where you have the top predators, and there's enough prey that they can forage on.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And it's when you walk inland from the coral-sand shore that tiny Rose, all of 16 acres, spills its secrets, a seeming armada of a dozen distinct seabird species that come here to mate and nest year after year, in the Tournefortia and Pisonia trees and anywhere on the ground

    Sooty terns and white terns, brown and red-footed boobies, noddies and frigatebirds and red-tailed tropic birds. Eggs and hatchlings and fledges and chicks on the verge of flight everywhere!

  • Brian Peck:

    Tiny place, tiny reef. But it's critical for this entire region of the South-Central Pacific Ocean. Within American Samoa, over 90% of the seabirds nest here on Rose Island. 16 acres, 90% of the birds!

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And, every visit, there are the tracks that Peck follows from the water's edge a few yards into the vegetation, where another female green turtle has returned to lay her eggs.

  • Brian Peck:

    This turtle went up. I think there's a turtle up there!

  • Mike Taibbi:

    This one, surprisingly, before the sun's gone down.

    Peck's process kicks in: painting a nail-polish name-tag on her shell, measuring her size and making sure she has a flipper tag to track her migratory pattern.

  • Brian Peck:

    This is the first time I've seen a turtle come up during the daylight in the evening time.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    These turtles usually cover about a thousand miles and several years before they return to Rose to nest again. Undisturbed, like the birds above.

  • Brian Peck:

    It's a great habitat. It's protected. The seabirds are nesting, the sea turtles are nesting, so, you know, the species are doing their thing. There's no humans that live here. There's no predators here, so that's rare to have an intact entire habitat.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    But there are always threats.

    At one point, rats were a destructive invasive species on this island, that is, until the Fish and Wildlife Service finally eradicated them in 1993.

    Today, it's a population of ants that transport tiny aphid-like insects called scale insects that suck the sap from the leaves of the Pisonia tree.

  • Brian Peck:

    See the tiny ants that are tending the scales.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    These tiny invaders pose a real danger to the tree favored by many nesting bird species here.

  • Brian Peck:

    You can see these leaves are just completely infested.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And the few coconut palms on the island, of no use to birds looking to rest or nest, are also a threat to choke off the more useful trees on Rose. So, part of Peck's extensive to-do list for each visit, clearing away any palm saplings and killing off the adults. Then on each circuit of the island, he collects the man-made flotsam and jetsam that will wash up on any shore, even here and he positions motion-activated cameras to record wildlife events or even the arrival of any unannounced visitor who ignores the warning billboard or comes ashore in an emergency.

  • Brian Peck:

    It's a remote place, very few people will ever come here.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    -Or should ever come here?

  • Brian Peck:

    Or should ever come here.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Or, in the not too distant future, might find there's no island to come to.

    Last year the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, updated the dire projections in its Ocean's Report: that "low-lying islands and coasts" are uniquely threatened by an accelerating cocktail of measurable threats: warming and rising oceans, ocean acidification, and more frequent and more intense storms.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Given the IPCC projections about the impacts of climate change, it makes sense that a laboratory called Rose would be an ideal place to measure those effects. At its highest point, Rose is only 10 feet above sea level, putting it right in climate change's wheelhouse.

    Peck's own surveys have confirmed significant changes in the shape and topography of the island, especially following extreme sea level events like the cyclone that hit in 2016.

    Even during our stay, when we slept in tents and had minimal gear, a couple of short but powerful squalls, weather events now more frequent and intense, scraped the island and collapsed one of our tents and the canopies that protected our equipment.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    How much of it is a priority to protect the vegetation here when severe weather events could wipe it all out in a day?

  • Brian Peck:

    Oh, it's an absolute priority of just having the native trees and shrubs. And they're resilient. You know, if the stressors if we can control the scale insects, you know, they'll be able to, they've evolved with storm events, so they'll be able to withstand that. Some might die, but then they'll regrow.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    And the birds keep coming back anyway.

  • Brian Peck:

    And the birds are able to rebound, too.

  • Mike Taibbi:

    Nature has proven it can overwhelm the best levels of protection and management and according to the IPCC, the pace of seawater rise is already twice this century what it was all of the last full century.

    Since our visit last fall, Brian Peck has been back to Rose twice to monitor the sea turtles and the coral reefs.

    In March, he did find that increased water temperatures have caused "minor bleaching" to the corals.

    For now, Rose Atoll remains teeming with life, as it has been since humans first saw it. Alive and essential, but never more fragile.

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