On Saturday morning we fly to Guam, an island about one fifth the size of Rhode Island. Guam is part of the United States, although as a territory it lacks voting representation in Congress or a say in presidential elections. Location is primary in real estate speculation, but it is also central to military strategy and ecosystem management.

Pictured: Endangered hawksbill sea turtle photographed on Western Shoals Reef, Apra Harbor, Guam on August 5, 2010. Photo by USC DSO Gerry Smith.

Guam is the only patch of truly U.S. soil in the western Pacific and it has one of the finest deepwater anchorages in that part of the world — Apra Harbor. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has been planning a massive military buildup of Guam, including the relocation of U.S. Marines and their dependants from foreign soil (the Japanese island of Okinawa), and provisions for more frequent berthing of aircraft carriers in Apra Harbor. This buildup will significantly increase the population of 180,000 currently on this island and greatly stress its already deficient infrastructure.

The most productive ecosystems in the world are coral reefs, and those in Guam are threatened. The number of people per unit area of reef is already much higher than in other parts of Micronesia, such as Palau. While coral reefs are frequently harmed indirectly by human activity such as agricultural runoff, some of the reefs on Guam will be destroyed entirely in the course of dredging Apra Harbor for naval vessels. The DOD was required to prepare an environmental impact statement for the proposed buildup, and comparing that document to the "boots-on-the-ground" reality we will observe in Guam is a big part of the reason we are going there rather than another exotic location imperiled by climate change or overfishing.

Left: Map of Guam. Courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.

Last year we made eight dives in and around Apra Harbor, including two on Western Shoals Reef — approximately 200 meters from the proposed Navy dredging. The DOD environmental impact statement is a controversial document. To quote the chapter on proposed aircraft carrier berthing in Apra Harbor:

…no sea turtle density information is available for Apra Harbor, however thousands of dive hours have been conducted by the Navy and its contractors in the past seven years. Sea turtles have not been observed foraging or resting within the proposed project area; it has been observed to function as a transit area to and from Sasa Bay.

We saw endangered hawksbill sea turtles on both of our dives immediately outside the proposed project area, and we photographed one of them. Was it foraging? It was present on the reef, and sponges and other potential food items were nearby.

Right: Map showing Guam in relation to its surroundings.

Last year we also spent a lot of time with the Guam Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources (the equivalent of a state fish and game agency). With their help our students became acquainted with several endemic Guam species that are threatened as a result of invasive vipers and other species, as well as habitat loss. Further habitat loss will inevitably occur as the proposed buildup moves forward.

Left: Image of aircraft carrier berthing alternatives in Apra Harbor. Image from U.S. Department of Defense Environmental Impact Statement "Guam and CNMI Military Relocation," July 2010.

The natural environment of Guam, both marine and terrestrial, is threatened, and this is especially so as Guam becomes of increasing strategic importance to the U.S. military. We are a day or two from putting USC Dornsife students into this environment. After we answer the question “Why Palau?” you will start hearing from these students.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This four-week course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the 24-student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam, Palau and other Micronesian islands.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.