• by Dr. Sarah Oktay, Director, University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station •
2014 has been an interesting and eventful year for the world of Nantucket nature.
Winter Storms on Nantucket
In March we had a serious winter storm similar to the doozies we endured in February and March of 2013. As temperatures warm worldwide more severe storms including hurricanes and nor’easters will be visiting us and the warmer temperatures typically lead to more snow. On March 25th and 26th a blizzard hit Nantucket with winds in excess of 80 mph, 5 foot drifts on Milestone and Polpis road, power outages, sunken boats, flooding downtown, school and government offices closed and general mayhem. The official snow total for Nantucket was 9.5 inches and the highest recorded official wind gust was 82 mph.
This was not a named storm like Nemo and Saturn the year before. According the Weather Channel’s winter weather expert Tom Niziol, “Our process to name winter storms is based on the impacts that occur across the U.S. We assess those impacts based on the population and areas that are under National Weather Service warnings or advisories or anticipated to be so. In order for the storm to be named, we need at least 2.5 million people under warnings and 10 million people under warnings and advisories. In this case, area and population anticipated to be under winter storm warnings was not large enough to satisfy the naming criteria”. This was no ordinary storm, many atmospheric conditions came together to cause explosive intensification of this storm off the east coast with a 45 mb pressure drop in just 24 hours recorded. The meteorological definition of a “bomb” is a rapidly intensifying storm system, with at least a 24 mb pressure drop in 24 hours, so this storm was almost twice as impressive!
Spring & Summer Weather on Nantucket
Eventually winter ended and we moved into a mild and wet spring and dry summer. According to US Climate Data (http://www.usclimatedata.com/climate/nantucket/massachusetts/united-states/usma0271) we have an annual high temperature: of 56.8°F; an annual low temperature of 43.2°F and an average temperature of 50°F with average annual precipitation (converted to rainfall of) 37.53 inches. But don’t let those numbers scare you, we have average highs of 75 degrees in July and August to look forward to. If you are really into the past year’s weather data, check out WeatherSpark.com (http://weatherspark.com/history/29566/2014/Nantucket-Massachusetts-United-States). You’ll see by checking out the graphs that we had another storm on the 4th of July with sustained winds of 49 mph.
The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative
The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative held its first ever biodiversity assessment week in summer with support from Remain Nantucket. It was a great success with dozens of citizens and students helping about approximately a dozen scientists collect data around the island. We vacuumed up and counted spiders in the salt marsh (bet you didn’t know there were spiders out there) with Dr. Jarrett Byrnes, collected invertebrates from the harbor with Dr. Beth Boyle, counted tiger beetles on the beach near Eel point with Tim Simmons, tromped through the beautiful trails of the Linda Loring Nature Center with Dr. Bryan Connolly, State Botanist, MA Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program banded birds with Dr. Richard Veit, Biology Department, College of Staten Island/The City University of New York. Edie Ray lead us on an early morning bird walk, Julia Blyth helped us locate and document dragonflies and Charlie Eiseman continued his magical survey of discovering insects hidden in plain sight. Last but not least, Timothy Boland, Executive Director of the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury on the other island (Martha’s Vineyard) taught us about our oaks on Nantucket and Tuckernuck.
Water Quality Assessments on Nantucket
I got a chance to work with actor and water quality activist Mark Ruffalo and Chief Scientist Scott Smith testing passive water samplers on the island throughout the spring summer and fall for the nonprofit organization Water Defense (http://yesterdaysisland.com/water-defense-rescue/ ). One of the insidious problems we are hoping to learn more about on Nantucket is the blue green cyanobacteria blooms that I have written about that occur in our fresh water ponds. It isn’t every day that one gets to work with a famous actor and I have been honored to provide scientific advice and act as “test kitchen” for their work on island. Recently Mr. Ruffalo received the Britannia Humanitarian Award for his work with Water Defense. “The non-profit organization Ruffalo co-founded is dedicated to using technology and public engagement to keep waterways and drinking water sources free from contamination and industrial degradation. The Britannia Humanitarian Award is presented to a colleague who has used their position in the entertainment industry to create positive social change and actively shine a light on important humanitarian issues.” http://www.bbcamerica.com/britannia-awards/about-the-show/.
New Duties with the Organization of Biological Field Stations
I was fortunate to receive another honor this year when I was elected to be the President of the Organization of Biological Field Stations (www.obfs.org) for the next two years. Field stations are places in which students and researchers can learn and conduct experiments in a location away from their home university or institute. In effect we act as base stations providing lab space, classroom space, a place to cook dinner or lay one’s head while examining the natural world. We capitalize on our locations to interact with the public and policy makers and many field station excel in citizen science initiatives and in K-12 teaching opportunities that give kids that chance to learn through place-based hands-on learning. The National Academy of Sciences eloquently describes field station like the Nantucket Field Station and the hundreds around the globe: “Field stations and marine labs connect scientists, educators, and communities to their environments by bringing the basic tools of science out into the field. These living laboratories place scientists on the front lines of our changing Earth.” There are hundreds of field stations around the world, make sure to explore them on your travels or at home if you don’t happen to live here year round.
Articles on Nantucket Nature and Science
Throughout the year I wrote columns on beach plums, bioluminescent creatures like our prolific harbor ctenophores, monarch butterflies, and various croaking and peeping nocturnal fauna. One of my summer articles discussed the “rust tide” phenomenon caused by a dinoflagellate called Cochlodinium polykrikoides that has been occurring in our harbor on and off over the past few years as a result of overabundance of nutrients. I received many comments on my article about the sudsy looking foam on our beaches which is a result of wave and wind sculpted organic matter, or essentially the remnants of the innards of phytoplankton and broken cells, as natural and necessary as the leaves decomposing all over the ground today.
Great White Sharks return to Nantucket
Two great white sharks tagged in 2013 returned to our waters in late September. Katharine and Betsy were tagged by scientists with the well-known Massachusetts based shark research group OCEARCH (http://www.ocearch.org/) in August of last year and within a little more than one year have returned to our shores. Although many people are concerned about both the return of the gray seals and great whites, it is important to remember that the great white sharks and many other shark species are apex predators (like humans) which are, as the name implies, the top predator in the food web. In other words, these creatures are the lions of the sea and they help maintain ecosystem balance. If we remove top predators, we would disrupt the delicate balance of the food web. It is a success story that they have returned and despite some high profile incidents between humans and sharks, their return has increased tourism on the Cape.
No matter what month it is, beauty and wonder can be found as you explore Nantucket. I hope you go to http://yesterdaysisland.com/category/island-science/ on those long dark nights this winter and read about our lovely island and the natural world. Send an email to email@example.com if you have a question or story idea and keep an eye out for my book collating some of these columns into one big glorious mess coming out this spring. Come visit the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and me at the UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station throughout the winter, our trails are open from 9:00 am to dusk every day. And we are still accepting students for the third UMass Boston School for the Environment Nantucket Semester; go to http://www.umb.edu/academics/environment/ug/nantucket for enrollment information. You can get 16-17 college credits from February to May in a residential program while doing research on island.