This is the first in a series of articles on the Cape Cod National Seashore’s science program. It explores why science matters at the Seashore and why it’s at risk.
The Cape Cod National Seashore is more than just a beautiful playground. It’s also a living laboratory, where fundamental questions about nature are asked and answered through science.But recent budget cuts have left the park’s science staff searching for ways to continue their work with fewer resources.
The Trump administration’s 2021 budget plan cuts the National Park Service’s allocation by $587 million — 17 percent of its operating budget. That’s the biggest cut in years, but it follows a decade-long downward trend.
Fewer resources have meant the Seashore has had to make some difficult decisions. The number of science staff has dropped from 10 to 6 since 2010. Grant funding from the Dept. of the Interior, to which Seashore scientists often apply, has become increasingly competitive.
“We find we’re less likely to get funded than we used to be, and research money is not consistently available,” park ecologist Sophia Fox said.
“A lot of the funding we’ve gotten recently has been going to facilities management,” said Steve Smith, another ecologist. “In terms of doing science, that’s been either flat or going down.” Meanwhile, operating costs, like salaries and health benefits, are increasing.
Seashore Supt. Brian Carlstrom told the Independent that the park works with what it receives from Congress. “Saying that budget cuts have led to reduced capacity and science capability is an overgeneralization,” he said. “We do all we can with the resources we’re allocated. It comes down to where we want to place our emphasis.”
One area of emphasis that Carlstrom said the park will continue to support is long-term monitoring of air and water quality. Those data are made available nationally for other scientists to use.
The Seashore began intensive monitoring of the Outer Cape’s kettle ponds in 1980 because of concerns about increasing acidity, and monitoring continues to this day. Scientists at the Seashore recently reviewed the decades of data collected from the ponds to determine whether amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 had reduced acid rain.
Fox and Smith, who analyzed the data, found that the ponds have become significantly less acidic since 1990. They also found that climate change is starting to affect the ponds by increasing temperature and stratification — less mixing between cool bottom and warm surface waters.
“There’s not a lot out there that can show that change, with respect to climate and the Clean Air Act,” said Fox. “That kind of work is really unique and based on long-term monitoring.” Isolated kettle ponds, with few inputs besides rainwater, are very sensitive to changes in the atmosphere. These changes have profound consequences for life in the ponds.
Long-term data sets are crucial in documenting these trends. Geoff Sanders is the chief of natural resource management and science at the Seashore. He explained why data collected over many years matter.
“Short-term experiments are really valuable in their own right, but it’s hard to say over a three-year period that temperatures or sea levels are rising,” Sanders said. “Over 10, 15, or 20 years, it’s amazing to see what you can detect.”
Mark Adams, the Seashore’s GIS specialist, agreed. “If you just look at it in a short time frame, it’s chaos. You need decades,” he said. Some trends, like warming or changes in acidity, are detectable only over many years, since there can be plenty of seasonal variation. It’s only over long periods that a signal can emerge from the noise.
Why Science Matters
Carlstrom said that science is “absolutely critical to understanding the Seashore. It’s a core part of what we do.” Research is applied both to how the park understands its ecosystems and how it manages them.
Smith said that scientific understanding affects practical decisions about nature. “How do we manage it and take care of it for future generations?”
“We want to be ahead of trends,” Adams said. Without observing the natural world, slow-moving changes are not apparent, and problems arising from those changes can occur before people realize there is an issue.
Monitoring also helps inform the public. The decrease in kettle pond acidity shows that air pollution control has worked. “When we care about the environment and control adverse impacts, it can recover,” Smith said.
On the flip side, warming trends highlight the ubiquity of the climate crisis. Seashore scientists give public talks, hoping to inspire curiosity about the Seashore’s ecosystems and environmental stewardship. By attending conferences and publishing their research, park scientists are able to broadcast their results widely, Smith said.
Research also is crucial for management within the Seashore.
Park ecologist Tim Smith has been working on restoring the Herring River for more than a decade. He uses baseline data, collected over many years, to model the effects of increasing the tidal flow in the estuary. After the tide gates are opened, monitoring will continue, and will help inform future decision-making.
Other examples of science-based decision-making include the new parking lot at Herring Cove, which was moved back to account for erosion rates measured by Seashore scientists, and decisions regarding dredging in the Nauset estuary system.
A Way Forward
All the Seashore scientists the Independent interviewed expressed concern about the future of science in the park.
With fewer resources and half the staff, Fox said, some long-term monitoring projects have been shut down. “Long-term monitoring is definitely suffering,” she said.
Steve Smith is worried, too. “In an environment where things are happening quickly in terms of change, it’s unfortunate that we may have to ramp down certain activities,” he said.
When asked about his plan for the future, Carlstrom said that partnering with other organizations will be important. “We undertake scientific research through cooperation all the time. We’ll continue to refine that,” he said.
Fox said that she will have to get creative by designing cheaper experiments and continuing to collaborate with other organizations, like the Center for Coastal Studies, to share resources. If original studies can’t be done in the Seashore, staff will need to rely more on research produced elsewhere.