Travel to the atoll in 2013 was not possible even through organized tour companies or as a Fish and Wildlife Service volunteer. Due to cuts in the U.S. government's 2013 fiscal budget, visitor and volunteer programs have been suspended. The visitor program (which reopened the atoll to visitors in January 2008) hosted 332 visitors in 2012. The tours have focused on the ecology of Midway and its military history. The economy is derived solely from governmental sources and tourist fees. All food and manufactured goods are imported. The refuge and most of its surrounding area are part of the larger Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Midway Atoll is part of a chain of volcanic islands, atolls, and seamounts extending from Hawaii up to the tip of the Aleutian Islands and known as the Hawaii-Emperor chain. It consists of a ring-shaped barrier reef and several sand islets. The two significant pieces of land, Sand Island and Eastern Island, provide a habitat for millions of seabirds. The island sizes are shown in the table above, but according to other sources, Sand Island measures 1,250 acres (510 ha) in area and the lagoon within the fringing rim of coral reef 9,900 acres (4,000 ha). The atoll, which has a small population (approximately 60 in 2014, but no indigenous inhabitants), is designated an insular area under the authority of the United States Department of the Interior.
Midway was formed roughly 28 million years ago when the seabed underneath it was over the same hotspot from which the Island of Hawaii is now being formed. In fact, Midway was once a shield volcano perhaps as large as the island of Lana'i. 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 feet (157 m) thick (in the lagoon, 1,261 feet (384 m), 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 miles (9.7 km) across. Following Kure Atoll, Midway is the 2nd most northern atoll in the world.
The atoll has some 20 miles (32 km) of roads, 4.8 miles (7.7 km) of pipelines, one port on Sand Island (World Port Index Nr. 56328, MIDWAY ISLAND), and an airfield. As of 2004, Henderson Field airfield at Midway Atoll, with its one active runway (rwy 06/24, around 8,000 feet (2,400 m) long) 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 from March 2008.
Despite being located at 28°12'N which is above the Tropic of Cancer, Midway Atoll features a Tropical savanna climate (KöppenAw) with very pleasant year-round temperatures. Rainfall is evenly distributed throughout the year, with only two months being able to be classified as dry season months(May and June).
The atoll was sighted on July 5, 1859, by Captain N.C. Middlebrooks, 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 August 28, 1867, Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna formally took possession of the atoll for the United States; the name changed to "Midway" some time after this. The atoll became the first Pacific island annexed by the U.S. government, as the Unincorporated Territory of Midway Island, and administered by the United States Navy. Midway is the only island in the entire Hawaiian archipelago that was not later part of the State of Hawaii.
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 to avoid the high taxes imposed at ports controlled by the Hawaiians. The project was shortly a complete failure, and the USS Saginaw evacuated the last of the channel project's work force in October 1871. The ship ran aground at Kure Atoll, stranding everyone. All were rescued with the exception of four of the five persons who sailed to Kauai in an open boat to seek help.
Later that year, President Theodore Roosevelt placed the atoll under the control of the United States Navy, which on January 20, 1903 opened a radio station in response to complaints from cable company workers about Japanesesquatters and poachers. Between 1904 and 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 Martin M-130flying boats operated by Pan American Airlines. The M-130s island-hopped from San Francisco to China, providing the fastest and most luxurious route to the Far East and bringing tourists to Midway until 1941. Only the very wealthy could afford a trip, which in the 1930s cost more than three times the annual salary of an average American.
With Midway on the route between Honolulu and Wake Island, the flying boats 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).
The location of Midway in the Pacific became important militarily. 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 rose, Midway was deemed second only to Pearl Harbor in importance to the protection of the U.S. west coast. Airstrips, gun emplacements and a seaplane base quickly materialized on the tiny atoll.
On February 14, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8682 to create naval defenses areas in the central Pacific territories. The proclamation established "Midway Island Naval Defensive Sea Area" which encompassed the territorial waters between the extreme high-water marks and the three-mile marine boundaries surrounding Midway. "Midway Island Naval Airspace Reservation" was also established to restrict access to the airspace over the naval defense sea area. Only U.S. government ships and aircraft were permitted to enter the naval defense areas at Midway Atoll unless authorized by the Secretary of the Navy.
Midway's importance to the U.S. was brought into focus on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Midway was attacked for the first time on December 7, 1941, and the Japanese force was successfully repulsed in the first American victory of the war. A Japanese submarine bombarded Midway on February 10, 1942.
Four months later, on June 4, 1942, a naval battle near Midway resulted in the U.S. Navy exacting a devastating defeat on the Japanese Navy. Four Japanese fleet aircraft carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu and Soryu, were sunk, along with the loss of hundreds of Japanese aircraft, losses that the Japanese would never be able to replace. The U.S. lost the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5), along with a number of its carrier- and land-based aircraft that were either shot down by Japanese forces or bombed on the ground at the airfields. The Battle of Midway was, by most accounts, the beginning of the end of the Japanese Navy's control of the Pacific Ocean.
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 aircraft stopped at Midway for refueling and emergency repairs. From 1968 to September 10, 1993, Midway Island was a Naval Air Facility.
The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March caused many deaths among the bird population on Midway. It was reported that a 1.5 m (5 ft) high wave completely submerged the atoll's reef inlets and Spit Island, killing more than 110,000 nesting seabirds at the National Wildlife Refuge. However, scientists on the island do not think it will have long-term negative impacts on the bird populations.
A U.S. Geological Survey study found that the Midway Atoll, Laysan, and Pacific islands like them could become inundated and unfit to live on during the 21st century.
Midway was designated an overlay National Wildlife Refuge on April 22, 1988 while still under the primary jurisdiction of the Navy.
From August 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. This program operated through 2012, but was suspended for 2013 due to budget cuts.
On October 31, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13022, which transferred the jurisdiction and control of the atoll to the United States Department of the Interior. The FWS 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 September 13, 2000, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt designated the Wildlife Refuge as the Battle of Midway National Memorial.
Midway Atoll is a critical habitat in the central Pacific Ocean. A number of native species rely on the island which 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 species has carved out a specific site in which to nest. Seventeen different species of seabird can be found, the rarest of which is the Steller's 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. The Fish and Wildlife Service has recently re-introduced the endangered Laysan duck to the atoll; Midway is part of its assumed pre-historic range.
Over 250 different species of marine life are found in the 300,000 acres (120,000 ha) of lagoon and surrounding waters. The critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals raise their pups on the beaches, relying on the 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.
The islands of Midway Atoll have been extensively altered as a result of human habitation. Starting in 1869 with the project to blast the reefs and create a port on Sand Island, the ecology of Midway has been changing.
A number of invasive exotics have been introduced; for example, ironwood trees from Australia were planted to act as windbreaks. Seventy-five percent of the 200 species of plants on Midway are non-native. Recent efforts have focused on removing non-native plant species.
Lead paint on the buildings still poses an environmental hazard (avian lead poisoning) to the albatross population of the island. The cost of stripping the paint is estimated to be $5 million. Paint removal is expected to be finished by 2017.
Midway Atoll, in common with all the Hawaiian Islands, receives substantial amounts of marine 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. Twenty tons of plastic debris washes up on Midway every year with five tons of that debris being fed to Albatross chicks. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates at least 100 lbs of plastic washes up every week.
Of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses that inhabit Midway, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive system. Approximately one-third of the chicks die. The reasons for these deaths is attributed to the albatrosses confusing brightly colored plastic with marine animals (such as squid and fish) for food.
Because albatross chicks do not develop the reflex to regurgitate until they are four months old, they cannot expel the plastic pieces. Albatrosses are not the only species to suffer from the plastic pollution; sea turtles and monk seals also consume the debris. All kinds of plastic items wash upon the shores, from cigarette lighters to toothbrushes and toys. An albatross on Midway can have up to 50% of its intestinal tract filled with plastic.
The usual method of reaching Sand Island, Midway Atoll's only populated island, is on chartered aircraft landing at Sand Island's Henderson Field, which also functions as an emergency diversion point runway for transpacific flights.
On July 11, 2014, United Airlines flight UA-201, a Boeing 777-200 on a flight from Honolulu to Guam, made an unscheduled landing on Midway Atoll after the smell of smoke was observed in the aircraft. Originally intending to return to Honolulu, the pilots instead landed the aircraft at Midway after the aircraft's interior started to fill with a haze.