MOUNT DESERT ROCK, Maine — Though it has been consistently occupied for nearly 200 years, this small, treeless island 20 miles off the coast of Maine has never been all that habitable to humans and is expected to become even less so.
Climate change is warming oceans around the world — almost nowhere as quickly as the Gulf of Maine — causing sea levels to rise and storms to retain their power as they venture north from the tropics. From the perspective of the small, environmentally minded college that runs research programs on Mount Desert Rock, that is all the more reason to maintain its presence on the low-lying, 3-acre isle.
“We have five decades of people who have cut their teeth on Mount Desert Rock and have gone off to do amazing things in the world,” Darron Collins, president of College of the Atlantic, said last week while sitting in his office at the school’s Bar Harbor campus. “That’s why we invest the money in the infrastructure out there.”
And while climate change makes maintaining the research station more of a challenge, he added, it is creating higher demand for the type of knowledge and skills students develop when they stay on the island.
“The word ‘transformative’ is overused, but they are different people,” Collins said of students who return from spending time at the remote site. “They are more prepared intellectually. They are more prepared socially and culturally, and they are more prepared technically to deal with the challenges of the world in the fields they want to go off to.”
The challenges the college faces in maintaining the island’s Blair Research Station were laid bare in August 2009, when waves and storm surges from Hurricane Bill ravaged the island, which has a top elevation of about 18 feet above sea level. The island was evacuated before the storm hit.
Three walls and the roof of the boathouse completely washed away in the storm, and two of the exterior first-floor walls of the classroom building were smashed to bits. Water levels rose so high that the roiling sea surged through the first floor of the lightkeeper’s house, making furniture bob about like plastic toys in a bathtub. The only structure left undisturbed was the stout, 171-year-old granite lighthouse that looms 80 feet in the air above the horizon.
The rugged lightkeeper’s house, built in the 1800s, was spared major damage and, after the storm, a temporary pier of thick wooden timbers was erected to hold up the second floor of the classroom building. The college, already accustomed to functioning in a place that has no dock, no running water and very little electricity, made do for several years without the shelter the classroom building and boathouse had provided.
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 not long after his arrival, but it wasn’t one he weighed for long.
“Without skipping a beat, I said, ‘There’s no way in hell we’re letting Mount Desert Rock go,’” he recalled.
Maintaining research stations on Mount Desert Rock and nearby Great Duck Island and at its two farms on Mount Desert Island is fairly expensive, he acknowledged, but worth it because of the rare experiences they provide to students.
“In terms of how powerfully it can shape the future of students, it’s hard to put a price tag on that,” Collins said. “So, from the get-go, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make this work.’”
Exactly how to make it work was another matter. The first step, he said, was to upgrade the school’s ride to and from the island by acquiring Osprey, a 46-foot vessel that COA put into service in the spring of 2012.
The second step — rebuilding — was made possible by a chance meeting between two people keenly interested in the environment and climate change. One was Sean Todd, the chair of COA’s marine sciences department. The other was billionaire philanthropist Forrest Mars, Jr., heir to his family’s confectionary fortune.
The two men met while on a stormy research cruise to Antarctica in January 2013, during which Todd told Mars about the island’s severely battered infrastructure. A little more than a year later, the college announced it had received a $425,000 grant from Mars, who died in 2016, to fund the repairs.
Post-Bill reconstruction was completed in 2017, just before another storm this past winter destroyed the doors on the new boathouse, continuing the station’s never-ending cycle of repairs. Barring the inevitable next big storm, students will be on the island throughout summer studying seals, birds and whales — though, in another example of climate change, only a handful of whales were seen off the island last summer as their food source migrated farther north than usual.
In early June, in one of the first overnight trips of the season, lecturer Scott Swann, also a COA graduate, brought a group of his ornithology students out to Mount Desert Rock so they could observe nesting gulls and eider ducks, as well as other birds they might find.
“It’s kind of like a biological magnet out here,” Swann said, seated at a large table in the dining room of the lightkeepers’ house. “You come out here and you see strange birds you don’t normally see. It’s very birdy.”
Swann, who helped in the rebuilding effort after Bill, said a big part of the education students get on Mount Desert Rock is how to manage the rigors of remote field research.
Learning how to plan, transport supplies, improvise solutions with limited power and materials, and to get along with people in a place that offers little privacy provides invaluable preparation for field work in remote areas of the planet that climate change is making more accessible, he said. Even if Mount Desert Rock is expected to succumb one day to rising sea levels, there is an “economic value” to continuing to maintain the research station, he added.
“To me, it is worthwhile,” Swann said. “You’re training people to do very unique things. It’s amazing how many COA students have gone to work [on expeditions to] the polar regions. If you can learn how to drive a boat [to shore] out here, and to land materials out here, then you can do just about anything.”
Lindsey Jones, who just earned a master’s degree from COA, is working this summer as assistant manager of the research station and plans to help collect tissue samples from whales that might swim nearby. She said spending time on the island has allowed her develop skills such as using power tools, and that living in the island’s tight quarters is good training for working on a research vessel, which she hopes to do before too long.
“The social environment is really interesting, to be stranded basically 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, pretty much, with possibly better facilities, like a shower or something.”
Matt Messina, a 2016 COA graduate, now works as a naturalist and guide on ecotourism cruises in the Arctic and Antarctic. Between trips north in the summer and south in the winter, he lives in Mount Desert and occasionally lends a hand on the island to his former colleagues, as he did early last month.
As a student, Messina worked three summers as an Osprey deckhand, running an inflatable tender to and from shore. He credits that experience with training him for his current job, which he hopes will lead to a career as a polar field guide author and illustrator.
“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 out there is a worthwhile but losing battle. The harsh elements have always worked against the research location’s infrastructure and, with the added power of climate change, are eventually going to win.
“If you took two years off and everyone went home the place would fall into ruin. It’s constant maintenance,” Messina said. “At some point, if the models are accurate, it will be unviable to operate at Mount Desert Rock. That’s kind of the reality we’re facing.”
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