Science and Adventure on Hurricane Island

In a cabin on windswept and rain-battered Hurricane Island in Penobscot Bay, 24 Bowdoin students clustered around a poster board covered with a winding trail of pink sticky notes – a timeline telling the island’s geologic and oceanographic history. “Glaciers retreat,” read one pink square at 15,000 years ago. “Sea level rises,” said another, situated 7,000 years later. Further down the line, in the 19th century: “2.5 million metric tons of granite quarried.”


What’s impressive is that the students figured much of that history out themselves, during a single intensive weekend of closely studying the land and water on and around Hurricane Island. Along with 8 faculty and staff members from the Earth and Oceanographic Science Department, the students were hosted by the Hurricane Island Foundation Center for Science and Leadership for a field seminar titled “Earth System Science of Hurricane Island,” organized by EOS department chair Collin Roesler.

The Sept. 20-22 trip was the department’s third annual field seminar for EOS majors and potential majors, following a 2012 trip to Grand Manan Island and a 2011 trip to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Of the three seminars, Hurricane Island was closest to home: an hour’s drive from Brunswick to Rockland followed by an hour’s trip by boat.

The island has a tumultuous geologic history, marked not only by natural processes that stretch back into the distant past—like churning magma, clashing tectonic plates, and bedrock-gouging glaciers—but also by human-caused events in the past century. As one of Maine’s historic “granite islands,” Hurricane Island was home to a quarry project that ran from 1870-1914 and employed 1,000-plus workers at one time, supplying top-quality pinkish-gray granite for the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Monument, and many other well known landmarks across the country.

Such past events continue to leave their imprint upon the island, and it was the students’ job to decipher the clues. With so much history to uncover, they had their work cut out for them. Between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, in both rain and sunshine, they scrambled over beaches and bedrock all around the island, canoed out on ponds, hiked steep forest paths, sketched rocks, sampled soil, and braved rough seas in Hurricane Island Sound.


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Faculty members offered guidance and then stepped back to let students take the reins. The aspiring scientists spent hour after hour looking closely, asking questions, and figuring out strategies for finding answers. Those strategies incorporated careful measurements with geologic and oceanographic equipment, sophisticated problem-solving, and healthy doses of estimation and extrapolation. Collaboration was also key as students worked together to gather and pool information, holding powwows in the field and between expeditions.

In their final presentation, the students stepped up to the pink-sticky-note timeline in twos and threes. With hand-drawn graphs and diagrams in hand to illustrate their points, each group presented a piece of the puzzle, collectively telling one grand story of the island’s earth system – past, present, and future.

“For students it was such a valuable opportunity to experience an array of earth processes that converge in one place, and it was a chance to work closely with faculty and colleagues while at the same time gaining independence as scientists through observation, inquiry, problem-solving and field techniques,” Roesler said. “Everyone learned a lot.”

Watch Exploring Earth System Science on Hurricane Island from Bowdoin College on Vimeo (image credits: Abby McBride, Rachel Beane, and Alice Anderson).

thumb:Bowdoin students aboard the Arctic schooner Bowdoin