Can’t Top This

A grey reef shark, Carcharhinus amblyrhinchos, patroling on the western terrace of Kingman Reef, over a school of fusiliers, Pterocaesio tile, 28 m depth. Grey reef sharks are the most abundant large predators and account for more than half of the total fish biomass at Kingman Reef. (Photo by Enric Sala/National Geographic)

President Obama made history today in a BIG way. By expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine Monument to six times its original size, he created the largest area protected in the name of conservation ever. Not just in U.S. history, but in the history of the world. And it is a record that is nearly impossible to break.

Video: Protecting the Pacific Remote Islands

How big is it?

The original Pacific Remote Islands Marine Monument, created by President Bush in 2009, was 83,000 square miles in size. It was already huge – about the same size as the state of Idaho. If it were a state it would have been the 14th largest.


Maggie Smith, NG Staff. Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; USGS; Marine Conservation Institute

The expansion ordered by President Obama today is 408,000 square miles. Just the expansion alone is larger than the states of California and Texas combined. If it were a state, it would be the second largest in the nation – by a lot.  Only Alaska is larger. And, the area of the expansion itself is larger than the area of U.S. waters spanning either the east coast or the west coast.  Compared to parks on land it is also exponentially larger. The largest U.S. land-based national park is Wrangell-St. Elias in Alaska, which is “only” 13,000 square miles.

The total size of the newly expanded Monument is more than 490,000 square miles. If it were a country, it would be in the top 25 in geographic size in the world. The newly expanded monument is twice as large as the next largest marine reserve, the U.K.’s Chagos Island, an area of 247,000 square miles. And it is more than 100,000 square miles larger than the previous record holder – the largest land-based national park in the world, Northeast Greenland National Park, which comes in at 375,000 square miles.

As a percentage of the US ocean waters, it is also quite large. The U.S. is the country with the largest ocean area under its legal control – we “own” the rights under international law to roughly 4.4 million square miles of ocean territory. The Pacific Remote Islands Monument alone accounts for more than 10% of that.

Pristine reef community with dominance of live coral and pink encrusting coralline algae. Clam Gardens, Kingman Reef, 1 m depth. (Photo by Enric Sala/National Geographic)

Everything is relative. And quantity is not always synonymous with quality. But, when it comes to parks and reserves, scientists agree that size does matter.

Even though it was created by a Presidential Proclamation, this monument is more than just words on a page – it is a concrete action so huge that it will provide tangible, benefits for the planet for generations to come. So when they write the history of the Obama Presidency, this is one big thing for which he is sure to be remembered. After today, he is in a conservation class by himself.

Changing Planet


Monica Medina is the Senior Director for International Ocean Policy at the National Geographic Society. She is determined to help save endangered wildlife and the last wild places in the ocean.