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Benthic Habitat Mapping of Palmyra Atoll

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An Interactive Mapping Tool for Palmyra Atoll


The objective of this project is to produce Geographic Information System (GIS) compatible digital maps of benthic habitats surrounding the Palmyra Atoll using the most accurate, cost-effective, and expedient technologies available.

Fig 1 Palmyra satellite view 2001 by GeoEye
Figure 1. Satelllite view of Palmyra atoll (GeoEye, 2001)
Figure 2. Derived bathymetry and multibeam bathymetry (Kyle Hogrefe, Gaia Geo-Analytical, Oregon 
                  State University)
Figure 2. Derived bathymetry and multibeam bathymetry (Kyle Hogrefe, Gaia Geo-Analytical, Oregon State University)
fig 3 draft benthic habitat map for Palmyra atoll NOAA 2009
Figure 3. Draft benthic habitat map for Palmyra Atoll (NOAA 2009)

Project Summary


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Ocean Service (NOS) is tasked with the coral mapping element of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force (CRTF) under the authority of the Clinton Administration Federal Executive Order 13089. Under this purview, NOS has been responsible for coral reef mapping in Palau, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the Main Eight Hawaiian Islands, and the Territories and Freely Associated States of the Pacific. While coral reef maps provide valuable habitat information that is important for coastal related industries, such as fisheries and tourism, these map products are essential decision-making tools for resource managers tasked with the sustainable management of coral reefs. When complete, accurate habitat classification maps will provide: baseline data of U.S. coral reefs; the location of coral reef boundaries and overall coral reef cover; and geomorphological structure in, and surrounding coral reef systems.

Palmyra is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands, in the North Pacific Ocean. In December 2000, most of the atoll was purchased by The Nature Conservancy for the purposes of coral reef conservation and research. The Cooper family still owns two of the five Home Islands. In 2003, a scientific study was published regarding fossil coral washed up on Palmyra Atoll. The fossil coral was examined for evidence of the behavior of the El Niño effect on the tropical Pacific over the past 1,000 years. In November 2005, a worldwide team of scientists joined with The Nature Conservancy to launch a new research station on the Palmyra Atoll in order to study global warming, disappearing coral reefs, invasive species and other global environmental threats. The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument was established on January 6, 2009 and includes the Palmyra Atoll. The Secretary of the Interior has management responsibility, delegated to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Project Summary

NOAA worked with staff from the Analytical Laboratories of Hawaii using commercial satellite imagery to develop a shallow-water benthic habitat map for Palmyra Atoll, from the shoreline to 30 m water depth. This included field surveys of the Atoll to validate the classification of the IKONOS imagery. Minimum mapping unit was generally 0.25 acre or less. Detailed benthic habitat maps were completed for Palmyra Atoll using high resolution commercial satellite imagery. 50.26 square kilometers of mapping was completed for shallow areas less than 30 meters water depth. The GIS products include delineation and identification of habitat by: 1) geographic zone, 2) major and detailed geomorphological structure, 3) major and detailed biological cover, and 4) percent live coral, at a minimum mapping unit of 0.25 acre. Thematic accuracies of the maps were rigorously tested with accuracies of 97% for the major structure, 84% for the detailed structure, 92% for the major cover, 86% for detailed cover and 86.5% for live coral.

Palmyra Atoll benthic habitats were dominated by:

  • medium density macrolage cover (37% of total area, 19 sq km),
  • aggregate reef/geomorphological structure (42% of total area, 21 sq km), and
  • low density percent live coral (46% of total area, 23 sq km).

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Data and Maps



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Time Frame

Completed: September 2009 - January 2011

For More Information

Project Manager:
1305 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910
301-713-3028 x171