Ecology Without Borders

Left: Marine biologists Kristy Hill and Katrina Lohan, who study oysters from the Chesapeake to Panama (Kim Holzer). Right: An iceberg in Baffin Bay, Greenland, where two sailors are tracking ocean acidification for SERC. (U.S. Air Force).

As we swelter in the doldrums of heat and humidity in Edgewater, Md., there’s a sailboat that just crossed into Baffin Bay off the coast of Greenland. It entered the Arctic Circle a few days ago. Another 300 nautical miles and it will reach the Greenland city of Thule, where the sun doesn’t set from April until August—and doesn’t rise from November until February.
The sailboat is carrying an instrument designed by one of our scientists to measure how much carbon dioxide is pouring into the world’s oceans. The sailboat, the CO2 instrument and the two-person crew are on a mission to track climate change in Greenland’s most remote fjords. The journey will take them into changing waters of the melting ice cap. The story of the Ault vessel and its crew is chronicled on page 4 of our summer newsletter.
This sort of research would have been unfathomable at SERC 50 years ago. In 1965, when the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center first came into being, it was not even called that. We were the “Chesapeake Bay Center for Field Biology,” with no lab, no offices and no resident staff. We were a field site where researchers came during the day to collect samples, which they then carried back to their labs in larger institutions to analyze. Many came to our site on the Rhode River, but we were not expected then to be a hub for exploring environmental change worldwide.
We evolved. By now, SERC research has touched coasts all around the globe. In this newsletter alone, you will find stories of invasive lionfish in Panama, hurricanes in Florida and cownose rays that migrate 900 miles from the Chesapeake down the East Coast to Florida every year. This spring we also hosted the first gathering of scientists from the Smithsonian’s temperate ForestGEO network. For three days, researchers from across the U.S. and Europe shared discoveries from their forests about colonization, forest fires and prehistoric climate change.
SERC’s growth depended on our grit and determination, but we also persevered and succeeded because we developed many successful partnerships. From the beginning, sister institutions like the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland helped us get our small field station off the ground. Over SERC’s history we have engaged many hundreds of interns and grad students from universities and colleges across the United States and other countries. The ForestGEO network encompasses 62 tropical and temperate forests, and while the temperate ones are coordinated by SERC, we would never be able to generate this kind of data without dedicated partners. Even now, the Greenland voyage is a partnership between SERC and two sailors who wanted to do something for the environment.
Science thrives by reaching out to places undiscovered and friends unmet. Those kinds of connections are what lead to knowledge undiscovered.
-Tuck Hines, director