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Environmental Studies

ES 101 Field Trip to Swan Island

Posted October 12, 2012

     On Saturday, September 15th and Sunday, September 16th, Bowdoin students enrolled in the Environmental Studies 101 course voyaged to Swan's Island in Maine's storied Merrymeeting Bay.

     "We wanted to teach the students about human impacts on the environment and that there's a history that's captured. There's a legacy, essentially." said Eileen Johnson, program manager in Environmental Studies. "We wanted to get them to start thinking about the connection between human and natural systems and how they influence each other."

     Along with ES 101 professors John Lichter, Larry Simon and DeWitt John, Johnson led 78 students to Swan's Island over the course of two days. Equipped with aerial photographs of the island and soil sampling probes, students attempted to determine areas where land was once cultivated. "It was cool to put together some pieces of the puzzle and determine how the land was used. We looked at where stone walls were placed and the placement of foundations and apple trees. It was one huge puzzle that we attempted to solve, and that was pretty interesting," said Parker Mundt '16, an ES 101 student.

     Professor Lichter was the lead researcher on a 2009 paper entitled "The Ecological Collapse and Partial Recovery of a Freshwater Tidal Ecosystem." The paper documents the history of land use and its effects in Merrymeeting Bay, and how the system has fared in recovering from the damage. The ways in which humans harmed the bay are separated into five categories: Overfishing, deforestation, dam building, agriculture and pollution. Consequences of these actions include species loss, siltation and eutrophication.

     Influenced by the dismal condition of the Androscoggin River, Maine Senator Ed Muskie was the leading force behind the passing of the 1972 Clean Water Act. However, Professor Lichter was quick to point out in a recent lecture to the ES 101 class that the 40+ years of ecological recovery since Muskie's legislation have not been enough to overturn the 300+ years of destruction that preceded it.

    "Originally the waters were exceptionally nutrient poor by today's standards, yet the system was much more productive in terms of fish and waterfowl. Today, one would think we might produce many more fish given the nutrient enrichment that is occurring. However, I suspect that important species are still so sparely populated that much of the energy and nutrients available is not exploited by the biological community," said Lichter in an email.

     Johnson felt the trip was a success, noting that Lichter's research in the area was an important asset.  "We found things that we hadn't known about with the information we had. It was really interesting to me that students were able to find the exact location of what were once cultivated fields without looking at the data beforehand. They were able to pick up information about the soil very quickly." 

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 "We wanted to get them to start thinking about the connection between human and natural systems and how they influence each other." - Eileen Johnson

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