It’s nice in Virginia, for sure, but it’s no Maine. Margaret Fletcher remembers coming back into Maine and smelling the sweet salt air and seeing the trees, and it makes her smile. On a summer day not long after her return from school in Virginia, Fletcher and her mother went down on a beach near her house. It wasn’t particularly warm or cold that day, but the sun was out and the bright reflection off the surface of the water made it sparkle like diamonds. The smell of the ocean mixed with the scent of pine was in the air as they stood on that beach, waves gently lapping the shoreline, and it was so perfect. She remarked during our discussion that she’d “wished I could put all of it in a jar to take to Virginia, so I could open it up and be back in Maine whenever I wanted.”
Fletcher would kayak on that same ocean she’d marveled at before. She packed a dry bag full of the essentials; a blue lightweight Patagonia jacket, which was perfect for kayaking. It “didn’t get in the way while keeping me warm.” She also packed a sandwich; peanut butter and jelly or maybe turkey if that’s what she felt like that morning. As she sat in her red kayak, paddles gently slicing through the water, she was able to see the world under the surface; all the seagrasses and the universes they contained.
Often found at sailing on the sea or walking on the shore, Natalie Overton examines every organism that she finds in the sea and on the eelgrasses while exploring. Overton grew up in Hawaii. As an island, many of the natives supported protecting the environment. They knew that if they lost the place they called home, they would lose everything and be forced off their island by the environmental changes.
Fifteen year-old Jane Pappas has a keen interest in the marine environment. She is an enthusiastic member of the Next Generation Environmental Leaders Program at Mt. Desert Island Biological Laboratory.
“I absolutely adore field work,” she says.
Pappas has always loved being in nature, especially while exploring the beach near her home on MDI. “I’ve always liked going around and looking at tidepools, even recreationally.” She says, “It’s very interesting to see the life that we can’t see on a daily basis.”
Pappas’s interest in marine biology started in her middle school science class, when they watched An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary made in 2006 about Al Gore’s slideshow educating the community about global warming. She says that she was shocked and concerned by the declining health of the marine environment. She says that day opened her to the importance of marine science, as well as to the fact that human actions have a huge impact on marine organisms. It was also in middle school that she started volunteering with Jane Disney, a staff scientist at MDI Biological Laboratory, conducting water quality monitoring and researching phytoplankton.
Disney is a scientist-turned- teacher-turned scientist. She is an avid environmentalist currently working on restoring eelgrass in multiple depleted marine habitats. As a teacher at Mount Desert Island High School in the 1990s, she would monitor water quality with her students and started the MDI Water Quality Coalition. Running this organization proved to be time consuming, causing Disney to dedicate herself to it full time. She began to feel that her scope of knowledge was too narrow, so she decided to ask involved community members what they were most concerned about in relation to the environment. The resounding answer was “eelgrass.” Consequently, Disney moved on to the restoration of eelgrass as a scientist at MDI Biological Laboratory in 2007, bringing her students along and continuing to involve, motivate and educate the community.
Says Disney, “We have an increase in our restoration area from less than 1% to 13% coverage of eelgrass. So, there are concrete data related to these positive outcomes.”
Disney started up the Young Environmental Leaders Program (YELP) in 2010. YELP is a branch of Disney’s work that focuses on students affecting positive change in the environment that they live in. The Next Generation YELP program stemmed from the original YELP program, about two years later.
Through Next Gen, Margaret, Natalie, and Jane are studying eelgrass in an intensive and independent setting. Specifically, they are looking into how eelgrass is important to the ocean ecosystem. They are also studying the pH, or acidification, of the ocean. The eelgrass is important to this because the photosynthesis of the plants can affect the pH of the ocean. This is important because it is related to climate change. The ocean is an ecosystem with a delicate balance. When carbon dioxide enters that ecosystem, the pH changes. The ocean becomes more acidic, which can disrupt various parts of it. The bones in the ears of fish can become thinner, and shells on shellfish also can become thinner. Many creatures in their infantile form cannot survive in acidic water, so they die and the food chain is disrupted.
Eelgrass is important to these studies because it is a carbon sink. As eelgrass takes in the carbon dioxide in the water, it lowers the pH in the water, which is good. It makes the water slightly more basic, which is good for the environment, because it means that the acid is lower and the creatures can live a healthier and normal life.
The kids in the Next Gen program have been studying pH using pH meters and a controlled tank experiment. The eelgrass used was taken from Hadley Point, a restoration site which has had baseline pH data taken before. The students were attempting to research the balance of eelgrass and pH, and if more eelgrass will positively affect the ocean. They set up three controlled tanks; one with no eelgrass, one with ten plants, and one with twenty. Then on a regular basis, they took readings of pH and compared the data over the course of several weeks. At this point, the data has been consistent that the numbers are higher with more plants of eelgrass. This means that the hypothesis is supported; more eelgrass equals less acidic water.
So what does this all mean? Essentially, that eelgrass is positively effecting change in Frenchman Bay. Hopefully, the data that the Next Gen students have collected will help further pH research and raise awareness about ocean acidification.
“In the past, eelgrass has been almost pushed to extinction, which could really harm the environment it lives in. Fortunately, scientists and researchers have been working to replenish those numbers, and it’s working. Like it or not, our oceans are rapidly becoming more acidic as carbon dioxide enters our atmosphere, and eelgrass can be one of the things that at least slows the damage, if not stops it. Now, the most important thing to do is be conscientious about our actions as a society. You don’t have to be a Ph.D. scientist to change the world. All you have to do is care,” according to Pappas.
The three students have come to understand this summer that the ocean is a beautiful and complex place. Underneath the diamond-sparkle ripples and whitecaps of the surface, there are veritable universes. Universes that are extremely important and delicate that need to be studied by passionate and intelligent scientific minds just like theirs.