Studying water and air quality in Acadia

With more than 47,000 protected acres, 45 ponds and streams, and 10 named wetland areas within or adjacent to the park, Acadia National Park serves as an ideal place for University of Maine researchers to study a variety of topics related to water and air quality. Current projects include investigating watershed processes that lead to coastal pollution, as well as the accumulation of atmospheric nitrogen and mercury in soils and streams. In tribute to Acadia’s centennial in 2016, UMaine Today is reflecting on the university’s relationship with the park, particularly in terms of significant research pertaining to the state.



Sean Smith:
We’re here at the Tarn in Acadia National Park. We’re collecting data that has helped us describe watershed processes that relate rainfall to runoff to the movement of materials out of the system and down into the Frenchman Bay estuary.

Justin Leavitt:
In general, it’s giving us an understanding of why this body of water’s here and what the past of this body of water looks like. The Tarn, especially, is pretty important to the public here. A lot of people have experiences from childhood here.

To understand the history of this place is going to be really beneficial to the public and to Acadia National Park.

Sean Smith:
Our immediate interest is in coastal pollution. We’re interested in factors that relate to pollution in estuaries that have influence on regulations of closures of shellfish flats and beach areas. We are very lucky to have Acadia National Park so close.

As a Earth scientist, one of the best labs that you can have is a space that you can predict from year to year what will be going on in those locations. The National Park Service is such a very good leader for watching over the lands that they manage.

They have a lot of information on the background, which allows us to set up study areas with knowledge of what’s been going on in the past, which is important to prediction of the future.

Michael Jakubowski:
Right now, we’re on a carriage trail in Acadia National Park. We’re looking at some soil and stream data.

There was a fire in 1947 that burned about a third of the park. In a nutshell, we’re comparing an area that did burn to an area that didn’t burn. 15 years ago, what I’m doing was done, and I’m coming back to look at this and say, “Hey, in 15 years, how has this changed, if at all?”

Ivan Fernandez:
The advantage of doing this whole watershed research is that it integrates all the components of the ecosystem — streams, trees, soils, understory vegetation, wildlife, biota, birds. All the components of the ecosystem are part of that system, and we can study it.

What we’re interested in is how it functions, but most importantly, how it responds to disturbance and perturbation. This pair of studies is particularly focusing on the impacts of air pollution and then how the fire of 1947 altered that, but it also is giving us a long-term record that helps us understand ecosystem function about all sorts of things.

These are becoming increasingly important kinds of studies — the long-term, integrated types of studies — as the park wrestles with managing the resource for the future given all of the demands, including the changing climate. Those insights apply directly to the sustainability of the larger forest in Maine.

The option of, “Everything’s going to stay exactly the way it is” really isn’t on the table. Things are changing faster than they perhaps ever have.

Michael Jakubowski:
One of the best things that’s happened so far is running into people on the trails and having small talk and walking around to the cooler and them saying, “What’s that? Is that for me?” It’s like, “Actually, no. We’re taking water samples. Are you interested in hearing about the science?”

People are like, “Wow, that’s kind of bizarre. That doesn’t happen very often. Tell me about it.” They get a little spiel, and then they’re actually more interested in the park. They appreciate nature that much more, and they appreciate science that much more. It’s all-around better for everyone involved.