This is the third and final article in a series on the Cape Cod National Seashore’s science program. It explores why science matters at the Seashore and why it’s at risk.
WELLFLEET — Residents of Gull Pond have a close relationship with Cape Cod National Seashore scientists, and not just because they’re neighbors. Sophia Fox, an aquatic ecologist at the Seashore, lives in a National Park-owned house on the pond next door to Herb and Bobbi Gstalder, leaders of the Gull Pond Area Conservation Association (GUPACA), a grassroots organization interested in kettle pond water quality.
The Gstalders, who have been summering on Gull Pond since 1976, explained that GUPACA has relied on science from the Seashore since the group was founded in the late 1970s.
For example, before detergents containing phosphates were outlawed in Massachusetts, the Gstalders urged local grocery stores to stock phosphate-free detergents after talking with Seashore scientists about how phosphates can lead to algal blooms. GUPACA also used information regarding nitrate loading to recommend that home owners around Gull Pond refrain from using fertilizer on their lawns.
Herb Gstalder was grateful for the Seashore scientists’ willingness to educate GUPACA about the pond.
“What really blew me away early on was their willingness to share data with us,” he said. “Well-meaning amateurs like us could really go off the track if we didn’t have an anchor in scientific data. Think how fortunate we are here to have the Seashore studying the ponds. I don’t think there are many government agencies collecting intense data in a small area like this.”
Through long-term monitoring of the Seashore’s kettle ponds, scientists like Fox, along with her colleague ecologist Steven Smith, have been able to document changes in water quality over the decades.
Since the Clean Air Act of 1990, those kettle ponds have become significantly less acidic, a result of reductions in acid rain. That’s good news.
But temperatures in the ponds across the board have increased dramatically over the past few decades. Gull Pond, for example, experienced a two-degree Celsius increase in surface temperatures from 1988 to 2013. This warming is directly linked to climate change and has big implications for the ecology of ponds. Warmer water also means increased stratification — preventing mixing between surface water and cooler, nutrient-rich bottom waters — and an increase in the risk of algal blooms.
Two degrees might seem too tiny to matter, but Herb Gstalder explained that small variations can have a big effect on the ponds.
“It’s not a huge change from a human point of view,” he said. “But from an ecological point of view, it’s huge — unprecedented.”
The Gstalders agreed that, despite swimming in Gull Pond every summer, they can’t detect a difference in the pond’s temperature since 1976. The changes are too small for humans to pick up.
“We wouldn’t know about it if there wasn’t data to back it up,” Bobbi Gstalder said. “Our decisions have to be based on data. Otherwise, it’s just opinions.”
The cyanobacteria bloom in Gull Pond last summer, about which the Independent reported on Aug. 9, 2019, was directly related to increases in pond temperature and stratification. Without the Seashore’s monitoring, that connection would still be unclear.
Interacting with the public is part of the Seashore’s mission, and Seashore Supt. Brian Carlstrom said that the park’s relationship with GUPACA reflects how the park likes to share its research. “We really like working with our neighbors,” he said. “It improves our science.”
Collaborating with government officials, community groups, and individuals builds trust between the public and scientists. Steven Smith said that GUPACA members are more willing to be open to new ideas because of their longstanding relationship with Seashore scientists.
Kettle ponds across the Cape are seeing an increase in phragmites, an invasive reed that can rapidly colonize and damage freshwater ecosystems. “They will ruin every single pond” if left unchecked, Smith said.
To control phragmites, Smith thinks using small amounts of herbicide would work wonders. When applied by trained experts in small quantities, he said, the use of a specific herbicide presents little risk to ponds.
“But people are really freaked out by that word, ‘herbicide,’ ” Smith said. “Part of my job is education — specifically, educating the public about the chemistry of a specific herbicide, what it does, its specific risk, based on data. It’s really the only thing that’s effective.”
Smith believes GUPACA members are more willing to listen to him because of their shared history; he feels that they trust that park scientists are invested in caring for the ponds.
With National Park Service budgets remaining flat across the board, the Seashore has had to make some tough decisions in recent years. Sophia Fox told the Independent in a May interview that some long-term monitoring programs have had to be cut. Staff reductions have resulted in fewer research projects and educational programs.
But there are some areas of hope.
Carlstrom told the Independent that the park relies on a wide network of collaborators. “There’s a whole lot of science capacity that can be utilized by the parks when we need it,” he said.
Within the Park Service, several scientific resources are available to the Seashore. The regional office supports research proposal development. The Park Service also has a natural resources stewardship sciences directorate, which houses specialists in particular fields who can help answer questions that come up in the Seashore.
The Seashore also collaborates with entities outside the Park Service, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Each of these agencies has conservation and research goals in the Seashore, from making data accessible to ensuring that endangered species, like the piping plover, are protected.
Other groups, like the Friends of the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, support research in the park through programs like the Nickerson Fellowship. In recent years, fellows have monitored greenhouse gas emissions from salt marshes and sampled zooplankton in coastal waters.
The U.S. Senate recently passed the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill that would channel 50 percent of revenues from oil, gas, coal, or alternative energy produced on federal lands to the National Park Service and other agencies. Up to $1.9 billion annually would be allocated to deferred maintenance projects.
Carlstrom said it’s too soon to say whether these funds could be used for scientific research or if the Seashore would receive any of this money. What is clear, however, is that research and science at the Seashore depend heavily on funding.
Former Seashore Supt. Maria Burks said staying informed is key to protecting the science program there. Groups like the National Parks Conservation Association inform the public about issues at national parks and influence lawmakers.
Ultimately, the Seashore’s science budget is determined by Congress. Burks said calling our representatives and voting are the most important steps towards preserving science at the Seashore in the long term.