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You are here: /main/research expeditions/ 2005 RAMP/9_29_05 Kure

9/29/05 - Kure Atoll
by David Nichols, State of Hawaii, DLNR, HIHWNMS

Oval butterflyfish.

A pair of oval butterflyfish hover above the coral at Kure Atoll.

Kure Atoll is 55 miles west-northwest of Midway Atoll and is the northernmost coral atoll in the world. We are at the extreme northwest end of the Hawaiian archipelago. The atoll is nearly circular with a 6-mile diameter enclosing about 200 acres of emergent land. The outer reef almost completely encircles the lagoon except for passages to the southwest. The only permanent land in the atoll is crescent-shaped Green Island, located near the fringing reef in the southeastern part of the lagoon. Almost 80,000 acres of coral reef habitat are found at Kure Atoll.

Kure Atoll provides opportunities for scientists to study a reef at the "Darwin Point," where the rate of coral growth barely equals the rate of submergence and erosion. North of Kure, the atolls have drowned to form the Emperor Seamounts. The seamounts lie in water too deep and cool for coral growth. Kure’s coral is still growing slightly faster than the island is subsiding.

Despite its northern location and relatively cool waters, the aquatic habitats of Kure offer a large diversity of corals and other marine organisms. In fact, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands include a much greater diversity of reef habitats than in the main Hawaiian islands. Many species exist only in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that are not (or no longer) found in the MHI, (i.e. corals of the genus Acropora).

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands provide perhaps the last remaining “pristine” coral reef ecosystem on the planet. It is a great place to perform comparison studies between reef systems here in the remote NWHI and those in the Main Hawaiian Islands that are disturbed by human impacts. Coral biologist, Greta Aeby, described it best when she said, “the NWHI is your coral – the MHI is your coral on crack”. The relatively intact marine communities here offer us an opportunity to see what the ecosystems of the main Hawaiian Islands may have been like thousands of years ago.

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