In search of serenity this morning, I escaped to Fog Heaven, a six by six foot shack with windows that overlook the South Field and the ocean. Sunlight filled the little room, which contained a bed, a desk and chair, and the boxed ashes of Bob Cunningham, a Kent Island legend. He and Chuck Huntington, who studied Storm Petrels, conducted research on Kent Island for over seventy years, making them possibly the longest-serving researchers on any single scientific study in North America. Bob first came to the Island in 1937 in high school as an assistant to Bill Gross, the first director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station. Bob earned his keep by milking the cow and collecting fog in nets as a side-project, the beginning of his life-long fascination with the phenomenon that is a defining characteristic of the Kent Island landscape. Anyone who has spent July on Kent Island knows that the fog arrives suddenly and sometimes lingers for weeks, covering everything in a dense shroud that reduces visibility to a hundred feet.
After his graduation from MIT and adventures as a plane “de-icer” for the Air Force during World War II, Bob continued to research the fog on Kent Island, earning himself the name “Fogseeker.”A career cloud physicist and meteorologist, Bob had taken weather observations since age ten, and was responsible for the detailed weather record of Kent Island that is still kept twice a day. The wardens of the Island, Ernest Joy, and later, Bob’s dear friend Myrhon Tate, recorded the weather and cared for Fog Heaven in the fall, winter, and spring, when the worst storms raged across the Island.
Bob’s weather station right outside of Fog Heaven in the South Field consists of a mast on a concrete base topped by an automated data logger that measures wind speed and solar radiation year round.Bob also used fog nets, made of simple aluminum screening over a wooden frame, for his tests of the chemical composition of fog. His research on fog acidity in the 1970s and 80s, which used data from Kent Island, helped to prove that acid rain was damaging conifer forests on the coasts of Maine and Canada.
His nearly fifty-year record of weather data is also relevant to current environmental concerns of climate change, because it shows rising air and sea surface temperatures. This summer, under the mentorship of Bob Mauck, a former director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station who knew the Fogseeker well, students Sarah and Liam are using this climate data to study the effects of rising temperatures on the reproductive success of Storm Petrels. So far it seems that the rising air temperatures that Bob Cunningham observed are allowing Petrel chicks to grow faster, but higher sea surface temperatures may have negative effects on seabird food sources. As Bob understood, climate is controlled by a complex set of interactions that have non-linear effects on ecosystems. His years of data collection are a valuable resource for scientific studies on the Island, and his dedication to observing the natural world continues to be an inspiration. Though he died at in 2008 at 88 years old, Bob’s presence is still strong on Kent Island, where a sign that he painted above the dorm door reads, “Prey for Fog.” Bob’s son Peter Cunningham, a well-known photographer and writer who grew up coming to the Island, still draws inspiration from the mysterious force of fog that both reveals and obscures.
I think of Bob whenever I do the weather chore, which involves going to the Weather Station every day at 8am and 8pm, and recording the visibility (a “2”when you can’t see a building 100 feet in front of you, an “8” when you can see Nova Scotia in the distance) as well as the barometric pressure, wind speed, and temperature. It’s easy to ignore the weather in a climate-controlled building, but on remote Kent Island, the rain, fog, and glorious sunshine have much more bearing on our daily lives. Paying attention to the weather is another part of learning to observe the world, which comes in handy when you know that the pressure is dropping and wind is coming in from the South, so you should probably bring your raincoat into the field with you.
Bob’s autobiography: http://www.egoaltar.com/fogseeker/
Jagels, R., J. Carlisle, C. Cronan, R. Cunningham, et al. 1987. Coastal red spruce health along an acidic fog/ozone gradient. Proceedings of the U.S./FRG research symposium: Effects of atmospheric pollution on the spruce-fir forests of the eastern U.S. and the Federal Republic of Germany. Pp. 229-233.