May 20, 2019
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Island science center aims to engage students, others in practical research

HURRICANE ISLAND, Maine — With her head and shoulders disappearing into an old well hole and her rain boots held firmly by an earth-bound classmate, 16-year-old Natalie Murphy of Islesboro was intent upon the task at hand.

She and her Islesboro Central School classmates spent three days last week closely examining the water system of Hurricane Island, by pumping out the water in wells and taking note of their recharge rate and quality. The question is much more than academic for the young islanders, who depend on Islesboro’s water supply just as the former residents of Hurricane Island depended on theirs, said science teacher Heather Sinclair.

“If you flash ahead 50 years in human history, fresh water will be the thing we fight over, I have a feeling,” she said Friday. “On Hurricane Island, we could tap into that cross section of science and human culture to look at the idea of fresh water as research.”

Now, more research is going to be made possible on Hurricane Island, which has had a unique history and is finding new life as the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership, a nonprofit organization that aims to engage students, teachers and scientists with field research experiences in a remote offshore environment.

Staff at the center was celebrating the announcement earlier this month that the organization had received a $1 million gift from an anonymous donor. The money will be used to help the Hurricane Island Foundation keep on building a sustainable and off-the-grid island campus while continuing to develop research, teaching and leadership programs.

“It’s huge,” John Dietter, the executive director of the center, said of the gift. “We’ve started to do the work without funding — without a guarantee we’ll be here a year and a half from now. … This will allow us to continue operations, expand, tackle renovations and start earlier in the spring and end later in the fall.”

That work includes the Islesboro students’ study of the island’s water supply, he said. Water has mattered a lot in the history of Hurricane Island, which is located just a mile off the coast of Vinalhaven. A century ago the island was home to a thriving granite-cutting colony, where an estimated 300 to 1,000 people lived. On occasion, the village ran out of water, and residents had to have it brought over on a barge. After the granite quarry shut down in 1914, the community abruptly died, too, and the privately owned 140-acre island was abandoned for several decades. Then the island found new life as a well-known Outward Bound outpost, where teens learned wilderness survival and leadership skills for 40 years. But in 2005, the last students packed up their wilderness gear for good and the island was deserted once again.

But not for long.

Hurricane Island is on the edge — it’s one of the last outposts in the bay, with little between it and the open ocean. However, it also is at the center, said Dietter, who previously spent 17 years teaching science on North Haven. It is a nursery site for Penobscot Bay’s crucial lobster population, for one thing. It’s now also at the center of science research for Maine students, for another.

“We’re doing hard science. Not naturalist science,” he said. “It’s real kids, doing real science with real consequences.”

Among the target audience are students like those from Islesboro. There are 7,000 middle and high school students living around Penobscot Bay and on its islands, he said, adding that he would like for many of those students to come to Hurricane and delve deeply into scientific research that is as practical as it is useful. Climate change and fisheries science are two fields that island scientists will be well-placed to study.

Brandon Chalmers, 14, of Islesboro was very active during the efforts to pump out several of the village’s old wells before tracking their recharge rate and water quality.

“I think it’s a useful project,” he said. “We’re learning how many people this island can sustain at once. It’ll definitely help out over the years.”

Melissa Cushman, 15, of Islesboro, who is a junior firefighter, helped out with the noisy Kubota water pump and attached hose.

“I really like it,” she said of the island. “It has a peaceful feel to it. I don’t have to deal with electronics and stuff. … And I just think it’s really cool. We can figure out where the bad water is, and learn how to filter it.”

Over their three-day, two-night stay on Hurricane Island, the students slept in small cabins that are equipped with solar-powered electricity, took showers with water also heated by the sun and used composting toilets.

The island’s infrastructure makes it so that students are comfortable while being environmentally sound, without having conservation drummed into their heads, Dietter said.

When not working in the field, they spent time in a renovated science laboratory, where they tested data and conducted experiments with the guidance of the center’s staff.

Students who come to the island will be doing different projects that are designed with staff members and their home teachers. Dietter said that students from Deer Isle-Stonington High School will be building remotely operated underwater vehicles equipped with cameras to explore the ocean floor. Another project he is excited about involves students from North Haven Community School, who will be using a book written 45 years ago about the plants and animals of Hurricane Island to track the changes that time has brought to the island’s ecology.

“This is school. This is not separate,” Dietter said of the center. “And Hurricane is a wonderful classroom.”

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