At only two and a half square miles in area, the Midway Atoll is an excellent example of the famous phrase “size matters not.” Midway’s history also helped to fulfill the ancient prophecy of “bird poop will one day help the U.S. defeat Japan in World War II.” Its strategic position has proven useful time and again for mariners and aviators of all shapes and sizes. Throughout its history, the island has proven an important base of military operations as well as a critical nesting site for millions of Pacific seabirds. Today, the future of Midway and its inhabitants are threatened by pollution and climate change.
Despite the distance, Midway Atoll is geologically a part of the Hawaiian Island chain, often referred to as the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain. Millions of years ago, Midway Atoll was directly above the geologic hotspot that is currently situated under the Big Island of Hawaii. Continental drift took the entire Pacific Plate to the northwest, and as the millennia wore on, erosion brought Midway closer and closer to sea level. As the volcanic island itself subsided further and further, coral reefs grew larger and larger, in a fight to remain close enough to the surface to undergo photosynthesis. Viewed from space, Midway Atoll consists of two islands, surrounded by a ring of coral reef.
There is no archaeological evidence that Polynesian navigators found their way to Midway, although some of their stories do seem to allude to the atoll. Midway first came to the attention of Western society in 1859, when Captain N.C. Brooks claimed the atoll for the United States under the 1856 Guano Islands Act. This act allowed the U.S. to provisionally occupy uninhabited and unclaimed islands for the acquisition of guano (seabird poop), which, at the time, was worth twenty-five percent that of gold. The nitrogen-rich guano was a very valuable fertilizer, and Midway Atoll was full of it.
If you manipulate a globe so that you are looking straight down at the Hawaiian Island, you can see that the Pacific Ocean takes up nearly half of the Earth’s surface. Anything trying to cross this vast expanse of ocean, be they man or beast, will face enormous challenges. Fortunately, the ocean is peppered with small islands, including the Hawaiian chain and Midway Atoll, which provide critical refuge to both wildlife and human travelers.
Even before the outbreak of the Second World War, Midway would serve as a vital stepping stone across the mighty Pacific. Midway was reportedly the final link of a worldwide telegraph system, whose first message was sent by President Teddy Roosevelt on July 4th, 1903. Midway (as well as Wake and Guam) was also used as a stopping point for the Pan American clippers, a luxurious passenger flying boat that would eventually make flights from California to Hong Kong in three days* (a maritime journey of approximately three weeks).
The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 was the final straw that galvanized the United States to finally enter World War II. Although the attack itself came as a shock, American leaders had been preparing for the possibility of a war with Japan since 1911. “Plan Orange” was the designation given to the contingency war plan created, just in case America found herself at war with Japan. With the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, and the procurement of both Wake Island and Guam, the U.S. now had a path across the Pacific Ocean, to be able to reach the Philippines (which were under American control at the time), as well as the rest of Asia. The longest transit for the U.S. Pacific Fleet would be from California to Hawaii, a distance greater than 2,000 nautical miles. Following that leg of the voyage, the ships could hop from Hawaii to Midway, to Wake, to Guam, and arrive at last at the Philippines. Each of these legs was somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 nautical miles.
Although Pearl Harbor was a major American disaster, the American carriers had actually been delivering planes to Midway and Wake when the Japanese struck, saving them from a fiery fate. A blessing for the Americans, and a curse for the Japanese, who wanted the United States out of the fight for the Pacific. The Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku hoped to lure the American fleet into battle by attacking the Aleutian Peninsula of Alaska, and wee little Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific. Fortunately, American cryptanalysts were able to deliver forewarning of the Japanese attack,** and American Admiral Chester Nimitz was able to position his fleet three hundred miles to the north of Midway, before the Japanese could set up their submarines around the atoll.
The Americans were outnumbered, and outgunned. The Japanese had eight aircraft carriers, nearly three times as many as the Americans, who could only muster three. One of these three, the Yorktown, had been hit a month earlier during the Battle of the Coral Sea, and was in need of repairs, which most thought would take at least a few weeks. In a Muskian feat of incredibly optimistic deadlines and unexpected success,*** repair crews at Pearl Harbor had the Yorktown out of drydock in only three days!
While the Japanese began their airstrikes on the atoll, the American commanders had launched more than 100 planes, which flew directly to the last known location of the Japanese fleet. Upon arrival, the Japanese weren’t there, and only after a bit of searching did they locate them. Two waves of American torpedo-bombers attacked, most of which were shot down, and the Japanese ships went entirely unscathed.
The torpedo-bombers were lower altitude aircraft, designed to launch torpedoes close to the surface of the water. To combat them, the Japanese fighters were also at low altitude, leaving their ships vulnerable to attack from above. Conveniently, this was when the American dive-bombers came across the Japanese ships, a group of four aircraft carriers. The dive-bomber attack was able to sink three of the carriers, and the fourth was sunk later that afternoon. The Battle of Midway was won, and marked a significant turning point in the Pacific Theatre.
Humans are not the only organism that takes advantage of the Midway Atoll as a resting place in the Pacific. Nineteen species of seabirds arrive every year to nest on the island, nearly two million of them! The atoll is home to one and a half million nesting albatross, making it the largest albatross colony in the entire world. The nesting albatross population makes up the largest nesting population of the Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) and the second largest nesting population of the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria albatrus).**** Several species of tern, booby, noddy, and tropicbird have also been known to nest on Midway. As of 2004, recovery efforts for the Critically Endangered Laysan duck (Anas laysanensis) began, with the introduction of around forty individuals onto Midway. By 2008, their population had increased to approximately three hundred individuals.
Islands, especially small ones, can be plagued by intense selective pressures that can pose devastating consequences on their native populations. Human development, pollution, and hunting are significant problems for many species, as well as the introduced and invasive species and associated diseases that can come with them. Low-lying islands like Midway will also suffer more intensely in the future with heightened storm surges and a higher mean global sea level. In some cases, island life is a literal example of putting all of your eggs in one basket.
For the Laysan albatross in particular, another major threat to its health and well-being is plastic debris. Washed into the ocean as trash and litter, plastic debris will become concentrated by the gyres in the North Pacific, resulting in what many have referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Every year, a ridiculous amount of trash washes up on the shores of the island, and it has started to have an affect on the local avifauna. Laysan albatross chicks have been found dead, their stomachs completely filled, and blocked up by, plastic trash. The adults seem to confuse plastic debris for prey, or somehow wind up ingesting it while hunting for food, and wind up regurgitating it for their chicks once they return from the hunt to the nest.
Despite these abundant threats (or perhaps because of them), albatross are extremely hardy birds, capable of flying at least 10,000 miles in just one trip, although it will rest on the surface of the water like a duck to rest on its journey. The oldest known bird in the world is actually a Laysan albatross, an individual named “Wisdom,” a female that is at least 65 years old, and successfully hatched another chick back in February of 2016. Nevertheless, albatross are very vulnerable when it comes time to return to these isolated specks of land to breed and raise their chicks, and significant conservation efforts are required to ensure that they don’t decline with the continually increasing challenges that these magnificent birds face.
As a tie-in to this blog post, I interviewed my friend Doug Hartshorn, an employee at the Morrison Natural History Museum, about the time he spent on Wake Island with the Air Force in 1972, for the very first episode of my new The Natural World Podcast! Check out the link below to listen in!
*As conventional methods of maritime navigation such as dead-reckoning and celestial navigation were not always reliable enough to rely on, Pan Am developed a means to transmit a signal from the aircraft, which was received by a station on the island, which was then transmitted back to the aircraft, in order to determine the position of said aircraft.
**There was evidence that the Japanese were planning something big about a month before the Battle of Midway. Although the cryptanalyst team was fairly confident that the target was, indeed, Midway, not everyone was fully convinced. So the team laid a trap for the Japanese. They falsified a radio broadcast, stating that there was a shortage of water on Midway due to the failure of a water distillation plant. Less than two days later, the team was able to decrypt a Japanese broadcast that stated that their mysterious target, which they often referred to as “AS,” had had a problem with their water distillation plant. As a side-note, apparently a number of the Americans hard at work decrypting the Japanese broadcasts were musicians from the American battleship California (damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack). The officer in charge of the team “thought their musical skills might make them adept codebreakers” (Ballard, 1999).
***Elon Musk, the famed CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is notorious for setting incredibly optimistic deadlines for incredibly complex and difficult projects. By the way, I rode in a Tesla for the very first time today. What a morning.
****There seems to be some disagreement over the more ancient etymological ancestry of the name “albatross,” although the more recent Latin influence of the word “albus” (meaning “white”) is clear (also check out the white tern, featured in a picture above: the scientific name of this animal is Gygis alba). Albus Dumbledore, with his “unmistakable silver beard,” was named by J.K. Rowling to reflect this, and the importance that the color white apparently has in alchemy. Some sources indicate that the name “albatross,” while certainly influenced by the word “albus,” also likely has its roots in more ancient words, as well. One possibility that I read on etymonline.com suggests that it can be traced to the Spanish or Portuguese word for pelican, “alcatraz,” which is also the name given to the prison island in San Francisco, which has been home to a large number of roosting pelicans.