How a tiny island in Maine is preparing budding scientists for a hotter world

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MOUNT DESERT ROCK, Maine – Despite having been constantly occupied for almost 200 years, this small treeless island 20 miles off the coast of Maine has never been so habitable for humans and is expected to become so again. less.

Climate change is warming the world’s oceans – almost nowhere as quickly as the Gulf of Maine – causing sea levels to rise and storms retaining their power as they venture north from the tropics. From the perspective of the small, environmentally conscious college that runs research programs on Mount Desert Rock, this is all the more reason to maintain its presence on the 3-acre low island.

“We have five decades of people who cut their teeth on Mount Desert Rock and went on to do amazing things in the world,” Darron Collins, president of the College of the Atlantic, said last week as he was sitting in his desk at school. Bar Harbor Campus. “That’s why we are investing money in infrastructure. “

Credit: Bill trotter

And while climate change makes it harder to maintain the research station, he added, it creates a higher demand for the kind of knowledge and skills students develop when they stay on the island. .

“The word ‘transformer’ is overused, but they’re different people,” Collins said of the students returning from the remote site. “They are better prepared intellectually. They are better prepared socially and culturally, and they are better prepared technically to meet the challenges of the world in the fields in which they wish to enter.

Hurricane Bill

The challenges the college faces in maintaining the Blair Island research station were laid bare in August 2009, when waves and storm surges from Hurricane Bill ravaged the island, which has an elevation maximum of about 18 feet above sea level. The island was evacuated before the storm struck.

Three walls and the roof of the boathouse were completely blown away by the storm, and two of the exterior walls of the first floor of the classroom building were shattered into pieces. The water level rose so high that rough seas swept over the first floor of the lighthouse keeper’s house, causing furniture to move like plastic toys in a bathtub. The only structure that remained intact was the large, 171-year-old granite lighthouse that towers 80 feet in the air above the horizon.

Credit: Bill trotter

The sturdy lighthouse keeper’s house, built in the 1800s, was spared major damage, and after the storm a temporary thick wooden jetty was erected to support the second floor of the classroom building. The college, already used to operating in a place without a wharf, no running water and very little electricity, was done for several years without the shelter offered by the classroom and the boathouse.

Reconstitution

The buildings still had not been repaired or rebuilt when Collins, himself a COA graduate, returned to the college as president in 2011. The question of whether the school, which has only about 350 students, should restore the structures arose soon after his arrival. , but it wasn’t the one he weighed for long.

“Without skipping a beat, I said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to let Mount Desert Rock go,'” he recalls.

Credit: Bill trotter

Maintaining research stations on Mount Desert Rock and near Great Duck Island and its two farms on Mount Desert Island is quite expensive, he admitted, but worth it because of the few experiences they have. offer to students.

“In terms of power it can shape the future of students, it’s hard to put a price tag on it,” Collins said. “So right off the bat, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make this work. “”

How exactly to operate it was another matter. The first step, he said, was to improve the school’s journey to and from the island by acquiring Osprey, a 46-foot vessel that COA commissioned in the spring of 2012.

The second step, reconstruction, was made possible by a chance meeting between two people passionate about the environment and climate change. One of them was Sean Todd, chairman of the COA Department of Marine Sciences. The other was billionaire philanthropist Forrest Mars, Jr., heir to his family’s confectionery fortune.

The two met on a stormy Antarctic research cruise in January 2013, during which Todd spoke to Mars about the island’s severely damaged infrastructure. A little over a year later, the college announced that it had received a grant of $ 425,000 from Mars, who died in 2016, to fund the repairs.

Research training

Post-bill reconstruction was completed in 2017, just before another storm last winter destroyed the doors of the new boathouse, continuing the endless cycle of repairs to the station. Barring the inevitable next big storm, students will be on the island all summer studying seals, birds and whales. than usual.

In early June, on one of the first overnight trips of the season, speaker Scott Swann, also an ACO graduate, took a group of birding students to Mount Desert Rock so they could observe nesting seagulls and eiders, as well as other birds they might find.

“It’s kind of like a biological magnet here,” said Swann, seated at a large table in the dining room of the lighthouse keeper’s house. “You come here and you see strange birds that you don’t normally see. It is very bird.

Swann, who was instrumental in the post-Bill reconstruction effort, said that much of the education students receive on Mount Desert Rock is about dealing with the rigors of field research from a distance.

Learning to plan, transport supplies, improvise solutions with limited power and materials, and get along with people in a location that offers little privacy provides invaluable preparation for fieldwork in remote areas of the city. the planet that climate change is making more accessible, he mentioned. Even if Mount Desert Rock is expected to one day succumb to rising sea levels, there is “economic value” in continuing to maintain the research station, he added. .

“For me, it’s worth it,” Swann said. “You train people to do very unique things. It’s amazing how many COA students went to work [on expeditions to] the polar regions. If you can learn to drive a boat [to shore] here, and to land materials here, then you can do just about anything.

Credit: Bill trotter

Lindsey Jones, who just graduated with a master’s degree from COA, is working this summer as the deputy director of the research station and plans to help collect tissue samples from whales that may be swimming nearby. She said spending time on the island allowed her to develop skills such as using power tools, and living in the island’s tight quarters was good training to work on a research vessel. , which she hopes to do before too long.

“The social environment is really interesting, being stuck on a desert island with the same eight people for weeks and weeks,” Jones said. “If you can live here, you can live on a boat, which is just as far offshore, roughly, with maybe better facilities, like a shower or something.”

Matt Messina, who graduated from COA in 2016, now works as a naturalist and guide on ecotourism cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic. Between trips north in summer and south in winter, he lives in Mount Desert and sometimes lends a helping hand on the island to his former colleagues, as he did at the start of last month.

As a student, Messina worked three summers as a deckhand Osprey, performing an inflatable dinghy to and from shore. He credits the experience to his training for his current job, which he hopes will lead to a career as an author and guide illustrator on the polar fields.

Credit: Bill trotter

“Mount Desert Rock is probably one of the toughest places in the world to land [a boat], “he said.” You probably couldn’t land a group of typical cruise ship passengers on the rock. It’s just too tricky.

For Messina, who said there is a “macabre beauty that comes with life” on Mount Desert Rock, keeping a presence there is a worthy but lost battle. The tough elements have always worked against the infrastructure of the research site and, with the added power of climate change, will eventually win.

“If you took two years off and everyone went home, the place would fall apart. It’s constant maintenance, ”said Messina. “At some point, if the models are accurate, it will no longer be viable to operate at Mount Desert Rock. This is kind of the reality we are faced with.

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