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Midway Atoll (or Midway Island or Midway Islands, ; Hawaiian: Pihemanu Kauihelani ) is a 2.4 mi² (6.2 km²) atoll located in the North Pacific Ocean (near the northwestern end of the Hawaiian archipelago), about one-third of the way between Honolulumarker and Tokyo. Midway Atoll is an unorganized, unincorporated territory of the United Statesmarker. It is less than east of the International Date Linemarker, about west of San Franciscomarker and east of Tokyo. It consists of a ring-shaped barrier reef and several sand islets. The two significant pieces of land, Sand Island and Eastern Island, provide habitat for millions of seabirds. The island sizes are shown here:

Island acres hectares
Sand Island 1,200 486
Eastern Island 334 135
Spit Island 15 6
Midway Atoll 1,540 623
Lagoon 14,800 6,000

According to other sources, Sand Island measures in area and the lagoon within the fringing rim of coral reef . The atoll, which has a small population (approximately 60 in 2009, but no indigenous inhabitants), is designated an insular areamarker under the authority of the U.S.marker Department of the Interiormarker. The Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refugemarker, encompassing 590,991.50 acres (2,351.19 km) of land and water (mostly water) in the surrounding area, is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The visitor program reopened in January 2008 and there are facilities at the present time for receiving visitors. Currently the best way to travel to the Atoll is through organized tour companies. They offer week long naturalist led tours focused on the ecology of Midway and the military history. The economy is derived solely from governmental sources and tourist fees. All food and manufactured goods must be imported. The refuge and most of its surrounding area is part of the larger Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monumentmarker.

Midway, as its name suggests, lies nearly halfway between North America and Asia, and halfway around the world from Greenwichmarker, England. For statistical purposes, Midway is grouped as one of the United States Minor Outlying Islands.

Midway is best known as the location of the Battle of Midwaymarker, fought in World War II on June 4-6, 1942. Nearby, the United States Navy defeated a Japanese attack against the Midway Islands, marking a turning point in the war in the Pacific Theater.

Geography and geology

Midway Atoll is part of a chain of volcanic islands, atolls, and seamounts extending from Hawai'imarker up to the tip of the Aleutian Islandsmarker and known as the Hawaii-Emperor chainmarker. Midway was formed roughly 28 million years ago when the seabed underneath it was over the same hotspot from which the Island of Hawai'imarker is now being formed. In fact, Midway was once a shield volcano perhaps as large as the island of Lana'imarker. As the volcano piled up lava flows building the island, its weight depressed the crust and the island slowly subsided over a period of millions of years, a process known as isostatic adjustment. As the island subsided, a coral reef around the former volcanic island was able to maintain itself near sea level by growing upwards. That reef is now over 516 ft (160 m) thick (Ladd, Tracey, & Gross, 1967; in the lagoon, , comprised mostly post-Miocene limestones with a layer of upper Miocene (Tertiary g) sediments and lower Miocene (Tertiary e) limestones at the bottom overlying the basalts. What remains today is a shallow water atoll about 6 mi (10 km) across.

The atoll has some 20 mi (32 km) of roads, 4.8 mi (7.8 km) of pipelines, one port on Sand Island (World Port Index Nr. 56328, MIDWAY ISLAND), and one active runway (rwy 06/24, around long). As of 2004, Henderson Fieldmarker airfield at Midway Atoll has been designated as an emergency diversion airport for aircraft flying under ETOPS rules. Although, the FWS closed all airport operations on November 22, 2004, public access to the island was restored beginning March 2008.

Eastern Island Airstrip is a disused airfield in use by US forces during the Battle of Midwaymarker, June 4-6, 1942.

Uniquely among the Hawaiian islands, Midway observes UTC-11, eleven hours behind Coordinated Universal Time.


Nineteenth century

The atoll was sighted on July 5, 1859 by Captain N.C. Middlebrooks, though he was most commonly known as Captain Brooks, of the sealing ship Gambia. The islands were named the "Middlebrook Islands" or the "Brook Islands". Brooks claimed Midway for the United States under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized Americans to occupy uninhabited islands temporarily to obtain guano. On 28 August 1867, Captain William Reynolds of the formally took possession of the atoll for the United States; the name changed to "Midway" some time after this. The atoll became the first offshore islands annexed by the U.S. government, as the Unincorporated Territory of Midway Island, and administered by the United States Navy. Midway and Kuremarker are the only islands in the entire Hawaiian archipelago that were not later part of the State of Hawaiimarker.
The first attempt at "settlement" was in 1871, when the Pacific Mail Steamship Company started a project of blasting and dredging a ship channel through the reef to the lagoon using money put up by the United States Congress. The purpose was to establish a mid-ocean coaling station avoiding the high taxes imposed at ports controlled by the Hawaiians. The project was shortly a complete failure, and the evacuated the last of the channel project's work force in October 1871. It then ran aground at Kure Atollmarker, stranding everyone on the ship. (All aboard were rescued with the exception of four who drowned in an attempt by five crewmembers to sail to Hawaii in an open boat to seek help. The party reached Kauaimarker, but the boat was overturned just offshore and only William Halford survived and was able to bring help to the stranded).

Early twentieth century

Midway Atoll in November 1941.

In 1903, workers for the Commercial Pacific Cable Company took up residence on the island as part of the effort to lay a trans-Pacific telegraph cable. These workers introduced many non-native species to the island, including the canary, cycad, Norfolk Island pine, she-oak, coconut, and various deciduous trees, along with ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes, and countless others.

Later that year, President Theodore Roosevelt placed the atoll under the control of the United States Navy, which on 20 January 1903 opened a radio station in response to complaints from cable company workers about Japanesemarker squatters and poachers. Between 1904 to 1908 Roosevelt stationed 21 Marines on the island to end wanton destruction of bird life and keep Midway safe as a U.S. possession, protecting the cable station.

In 1935, operations began for the China Clippers, flying boats operated by Pan American Airlines. The Clippers island-hopped from San Franciscomarker to Chinamarker, providing the fastest and most luxurious route to the Orient and bringing tourists to Midway until 1941. Only the extremely wealthy could afford a Clipper trip, which in the 1930s cost more than three times the annual salary of an average American. With Midway on the route between Honolulumarker and Wake Islandmarker, the seaplanes landed in the atoll and pulled up to a float offshore in the lagoon. Tourists transferred to a small powerboat that ferried them to a pier, then rode in "woody" wagons to the Pan Am Hotel or the "Gooneyville Lodge", named after the ubiquitous "Gooney birds" (albatrosses).

World War II

Burning oil tanks on Sand Island during the Battle of Midway.

The location of Midway in the Pacific became important to the military. Midway was a convenient refueling stop on transpacific flights, and was also an important stop for Navy ships. Beginning in 1940, as tensions with the Japanese were rising, Midway was deemed second only to Pearl Harbormarker in importance to protecting the U.S. west coast. Airstrips, gun emplacements and a seaplane base quickly materialized on the tiny atoll. The channel was widened, and Naval Air Station Midway was completed. Architect Albert Kahn designed the Officer's quarters, the mall and several other hangars and buildings. Midway was also an important submarine base. Midway's importance to the U.S. was brought into focus on December 7, 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbormarker (Midway was also attacked for the first time on December 7, 1941). Six months later, on June 4, 1942, a naval battle near Midway resulted in the U.S. Navy exacting a devastating defeat of the Japanese Navy. This Battle of Midwaymarker was, by most accounts, the beginning of the end of the Japanese Navy's control of the Pacific Ocean.

Korean and Vietnam Wars

From August 1, 1941 to 1945, it was occupied by U.S. military forces. In 1950, the Navy decommissioned Naval Air Station Midway, only to re-commission it again to support the Korean War. Thousands of troops on ships and planes stopped at Midway for refueling and emergency repairs. From 1968 to September 10, 1993, Midway Island was a Navy Air Facility. During the Cold War, the U.S. established an underwater listening post at Midway to track Sovietmarker submarines. The facility remained secret until its demolition at the end of the Cold War. US Navy WV-2 "Willy Victor" radar planes flew night and day as an extension of the DEW Line (Distant Early Warning Line), and antenna fields covered the islands.

With about 3,500 people living on Sand Island, Midway also supported the U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. In June 1969, President Richard Nixon held a secret meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at the Officer-in-Charge house or "Midway House".

Civilian rule

Unofficial flag.

In 1978, the Navy downgraded Midway from a Naval Air Station to a Naval Air Facility and large numbers of personnel and dependents began leaving the island. With the conflict in Vietnam over, and with the introduction of reconnaissance satellites and nuclear submarines, Midway's significance to US-national security was diminished. The World War II facilities at Sand and Eastern Islands were listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 28, 1987.

Midway was designated an overlay National Wildlife Refuge on April 22, 1988 while still under the primary jurisdiction of the Navy. As part of the Base Realignment and Closure process, the Navy facility on Midway has been operationally closed since September 10, 1993, although the Navy assumed responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination at Naval Air Facility Midway Island.

Beginning August 7, 1996, the general public could visit the atoll through study ecotours. This program ended in 2002, but another visitor program was approved and began operating in March 2008.

On October 31, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13022, which transferred the jurisdiction and control of the atoll to the U.S.marker Department of the Interiormarker. The Fish and Wildlife Service assumed management of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The last contingent of Navy personnel left Midway on June 30, 1997 after an ambitious environmental cleanup program was completed.

On June 15, 2006, President George W. Bush designated the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a national monument. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monumentmarker encompasses 105,564 nmi² ( ), and includes 3,910 nmi² ( ) of coral reef habitat. The Monument also includes the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refugemarker, and the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refugemarker.

In 2007, the Monument's name was changed to Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced PA-pa-ha-NOW-mo-KOO-ah-KAY-uh) Marine National Monument. The National Monument is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the State of Hawaii.


Red-Tailed Tropic bird.

Midway Atoll is now home to 67-70% of the world's Laysan Albatross population, and 34-39% of the global black-footed albatross.

While Midway supports nearly three million birds, each seabird species has carved out a specific site on the atoll in which to nest. Seventeen different species of seabirds can be found, the rarest of which is the short-tailed albatross, otherwise known as the “Golden Gooney.” Fewer than 2,200 are believed to exist due to excessive feather hunting in the late nineteenth century.

Over 250 different species of marine life are found in the 300,000 acres of lagoon and surrounding waters. The critically endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals raise their pups on the beaches. Monk seals are benthic foragers and rely on the Midway Atoll’s reef fish, squid, octopus and crustaceans. Green sea turtles, another threatened species, occasionally nest on the island. The first was found in 2006 on Spit Island and another in 2007 on Sand Island. A resident pod of 300 spinner dolphins live in the lagoons and nearshore waters.

Frigate birds.

Ironwood trees from Australia were planted to act as windbreaks. Seventy-five percent of the 200 species of plants on Midway were introduced. The FWS has recently re-introduced the endangered Laysan duck (Midway is part of its assumed pre-historic range) to the Atoll, while at the same time extending efforts to exterminate invasive plant species.

Environmental issues

Classic Gooney Bird pose.

The islands of Midway Atoll have been extensively altered as a result of human habitation. Starting in 1869 with a project to blast the reefs and create a port on Sand Island, the ecology of Midway has been changing.

Marine debris

Midway Atoll, in common with all the Hawaiian Islands, receives substantial amounts of debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Consisting of ninety percent plastic, this debris accumulates on the beaches of Midway. This garbage represents a hazard to the bird population of the island.

Of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses which inhabit Midway, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive system. Approximately one-third of the chicks die.

Lead poisoning

Lead paint on the buildings still poses an environmental hazard to the albatross population of the island. The cost of stripping the paint is estimated to be $5 million.


The usual method of reaching Sand Island, Midway Atoll's only populated island, is via Henderson Field Airportmarker.

See also


  2. USFWS Lands Report, 30 September 2007
  3. (Page 1).
  4. Questions and Answers About the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument


  • Ladd, H.S., J.I. Tracey Jr., and M.G. Gross. 1967. Drilling at Midway Atoll. Science, 156(3778): 1088–1095 (May 26, 1967).

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