A patient breed

For 64 years, scientist watches fog roll on

By Beth Daley, Globe Staff,

8/5/2001 KENT ISLAND, New Brunswick - Franklin Roosevelt was president and World War II had not yet begun when Massachusetts high school student Bob Cunningham visited this remote island and picked the only thing he could see to study: Fog.

Sixty-four years later, when the mist rolls in on Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy - and it rolls in a lot - the retired cloud physicist is still there, capturing, cataloging and on occasion praying for even more of the mist that shrouds the island. Cunningham, 82, along with 81-year-old colleague Chuck Huntington, who has been studying birds on the island for a half-century - just may be the two longest-serving researchers of any single scientific study in North America.

Cunningham studies one facet of fog - acidity - sometimes with financial backing, sometimes not, but always for science's sake. He smiles when asked if he has found anything stunning about fog in his six decades of study (''not really''). Still, he and Huntington represent a type of scientist in increasingly short supply these days: those who measure the same subject - no matter how dry - over long periods of time. ''Let's face it, these studies are not as sexy as leaping onto the latest molecular biology bandwagon,'' said Nat Wheelwright, director of the Bowdoin College Scientific Station on Kent Island.

Not as convenient either. The college owns the 2-mile-long island, which is surrounded by treacherous rocks and tides that can fluctuate 20 feet in a day. Fog hovers on the island so often that a seaweed- like lichen hangs from tree branches. The only way to reach the island is to take a ferry from Blacks Harbour in New Brunswick to Grand Manan Island and then trust a small-boat captain to navigate the rocks to reach the research station 5 miles away.

''People get bored, they get tenured, they move on, and there is such a premium on quick and flashy research. But we need people to get this baseline data, these benchmarks,'' Wheelwright said. ''It takes unending curiosity, diligence and well, you've got to live a long time.'' It's not that scientists don't understand the value of long-term research. Just as in medicine, where a handful of decades-long studies have helped unlock secrets to heart disease and cancer, longtime scientific studies are invaluable to understanding the environment and changes in it. Ecologists and climatologists cite the enormous gaps in data as impediments to studying global climate change over the past 100 years. The National Science Foundation even has a 20-year-old program to encourage long-term research into specific topics, such as the movement of nutrients on land and in water in the Arctic tundra.

''But it takes a certain breed to sit on projects for a long time,'' said Henry Gholz, director for the Long Term Ecological Research program at the Science Foundation. The program funds projects for longer than the one to three years that are typical with both government and foundation grants.

Though there is no official record of long-serving researchers, scientists at institutions ranging from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the National Academies of Sciences could not recall any scientist continuing a study for as long as Cunningham. Huntington, who studies virtually everything about small, slate-gray birds that burrow underground called storm-petrels, is running a close second, the scientists estimate.

But the two, who both sleep and research in shacks a few hundred feet from each other - and share an outhouse - seem oblivious to their stature. They remain solely devoted to data and, while funding is sporadic, they've continued their low-budget research virtually every year since they began.

''I guess I've never been imaginative enough to try something else,'' said Huntington before breaking into a brisk jog to retrieve binoculars left down a path. ''How does it feel to study storm-petrels this long? It's taken a long time to figure out how it feels.

'' Days on the island over the years tended to be solitary - long hours of research punctuated by the occasional dinner with visiting scientists and college interns, as well as Scrabble or maybe card games. Once in a while, Cunningham and Huntington would talk about their research, perhaps mention a notable find, but they share remarkably few science tales. Both men are taciturn Yankees who were too busy making the most of their short scientific season on the island.

As they've gotten older, the two are more often on the island at different times. Cunningham lives in Lincoln, Mass., during the winter, and usually comes out for a day to several at a time during the warm weather. He collects data and then returns to a summer house he shares with his wife on Grand Manan. However, he suffered a head injury in a fall last month and has only made it to the island twice since then. Huntington, of Harpswell, Maine, tends to stay for a few weeks at a time, rising at dawn to hunt petrels and then moving to a computer at the research station to log in data, sometimes late into the night.

But the two have a certain austere flair. Cunningham once had a boat called ''Fog Seeker'' and he still calls his shack ''Fog Heaven.'' The 6-by-6-foot shack is made in part with old windows from his house on Grand Manan, and a piece of foam on a seat serves as his bed. It's so tiny he has to sleep with his knees curled up, but he doesn't mind - he's an arm's length from data, and often, in the midst of fog.

Years ago, Cunningham and Huntington both would bring their children to the island - always careful to keep them on the tiny, barren island just long enough to keep them wanting to return. Now, the kids are long grown, but Cunningham's son Peter, a New York photographer, still posts pictures of Kent Island on his Web page.

Neither man set out to be science record-setters. After graduating from MIT, Cunningham spent the bulk of his career at an Air Force research laboratory at Hanscom Base in Bedford, working on weather forecasting to improve military flying operations.

Fog, however, has always been his great love. On Kent Island, Cunningham catches the mist pretty much the same way he caught it when he began in 1937: With a screen that captures droplets until they collect to form fog water. But now technology enters the picture, with a computerized testing system that samples the water for acidity and checks the air for wind speed and solar radiation every 10 seconds.

Measuring acidity in fog is an earlier and more sensitive indicator of atmospheric pollution than waiting for rain to fall. Over the years, Cunningham discovered that even a place as pristine as Kent Island can be hit with fog as acidic as vinegar. Next year, he plans to study mercury in the fog.

Huntington, a bespectacled man who looks like he is both listening and about to say something at the same time, came to Kent Island as a graduate student at Yale in 1947. Like Cunningham, who picked fog to study because it was everywhere, Huntington looked around, saw thousands of storm-petrels, and figured they would make a good research project. He began in 1953 and continued going to Kent during a long career as a professor of biology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

He mostly tracks the birds' population, noting age, eating patterns, breeding, and homing instincts. His study has outlasted many of the petrels even though they can live 35 years. He names the oldest bird after a suggestion from his daughter - his favorite was the now deceased Long John Silver, who was missing a webbed foot - and he has worn paths through the island tagging their underground nests.

''When I began, no one really knew much about them,'' said Huntington, as he recently reached into a petrel nest to grab - he says ''grub'' - the musty smelling bird and an hours-old furry shivering chick. ''I'm fond of bluebirds too, but I really like petrels.''

Even after half a century Huntington is still surprised by the storm-petrels. In 1966, he released a few Kent Island petrels on the south coast of England to test their homing instinct and they made it back to their nest here within two weeks. Just this year, he and an assistant realized that the few thousand breeding pairs they believed to be on the island were dwarfed by the actual number of perhaps more than 20,000.

Neither Cunningham nor Huntington plan to retire anytime soon but are busy training a new generation of researchers to carry on when they can't anymore. Both can't bear to think the research might end when they do.

''I'd hate to think this research ends with my lifetime or because of my health,'' said Huntington. ''It's taken a long time.''

 

Beth Daley can be reached at BDaley@Globe.com This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/5/2001. Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.