Last update: December 6th, 2019 at 8:00 am
When viewed from space, Kiritimati Island, Christmas Island, appears to be a complicated crosshatching of brilliant aqua lagoons, white sand flats, and sparse green vegetation, all afloat on the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. This jewel lies about 1,200 km (756 mi) south of Honolulu, Hawaii and just north of the equator. At about 125 sq. mi (321 sq km), it is the largest atoll in the world, and is governed as one of the islands in the Republic of Kiribati.
The island was uninhabited by humans when Captain Cook arrived on Christmas Eve in 1777. He dubbed the atoll “Christmas Island”, in honor of the landing, and the current name comes from the native pronunciation of the English name – “Kiritimati” is pronounced Kee-rees-maas.
The island has been a source of coconut palm, guano mining, and used as a marine fishery. In World War II, the island was occupied by the Allies, and it became an important staging area for the war in the Pacific theater. In November 1957, Britain exploded its first hydrogen bomb over the southeast section of the island, and in the 1960s the United States also tested bombs over the island.
Today the island is home to about 5,000 residents, and a destination for tourism, especially sport fishermen in search of bonefish or trevally, or for ecotourists interested in learning about a dying way of life, or for bird watchers scouting for the endangered Kiritimati Reed-warbler, an endemic that was once common but has recently been deemed “scare” over much of the island.
Although beautiful, the residents are finding that their island home is losing ground rapidly to rising seas. On November 19, 2014 the Irish Independent ran a story on their website, Independent.ie, claiming that Kiribati appears to be the “first country in the world to surrender to global warming”, and noting that the scientific prediction is for the Republic to be underwater or uninhabitable by 2050. The President of Kiribati is taking such predictions seriously: this summer he purchased 5,000 acres of land on a Fijian island in preparation for relocating his people when it becomes necessary, calling his nation a “canary” for climate change.
The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this true-color image of Kiritimati on November 11, 2014.