A Marine Biologist in the Mountains

2022-08-15 14:34:28.000 – Naomi Lubkin, Summit Intern

Summit Intern Naomi Lubkin on the observation deck. 
My first shift at the Observatory was a cold, clear day back in May, and what I remember most was the feeling of excitement and uncertainty. I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I knew I was ready to learn, work, and live on the highest summit in the northeast.
Having grown up just a little ways down the road in Bartlett, NH, I’ve always been familiar with Mount Washington. Part of my fourth grade curriculum was learning about the history of the mountain, and my daily commute to high school included passing the Intervale Scenic Vista and catching a glimpse of the often snow-capped peak.
I’m about to head into my fourth year at the University of British Columbia, where I study biology with a specialization in marine biology. All summer, whenever I tell people I study biology, I’m invariably asked: “So… why the Observatory?”
The answer, at least to me, is obvious. While biology and meteorology may seem completely unrelated at first glance, if you look further you’ll start seeing connections. An example is one of my favorite places in the world: the intertidal zone. This is the incredibly biodiverse area where the land meets the sea; at high tides, it’s covered by water, and at low tides, it’s dry and exposed to the elements.
Intertidal organisms, many of which are glued to the rock and can’t move with the water, have developed some really cool adaptations to survive these changing conditions. For example, the seaweed Ulva fenestrata (also known as sea lettuce) can completely dry out at low tides, and then when the tide comes back in will rehydrate without missing a beat. Giant green anemones will curl in on themselves and stick bits of broken shells to their bodies to conserve moisture and avoid damaging UV rays.
For me, understanding large scale climate trends sheds light on why organisms need the adaptations they have. The upper limit of how high on the shore organisms can survive is often determined by how much extreme weather they can handle. (Remember, “extreme” means different things to you than it does to an anemone!)
A tide pool near Bamfield, BC, Canada, showing the biodiversity of intertidal life. Ulva fenestrata is the grass-green seaweed. Giant green anemones, some with shell fragments stuck to them, are visible in the middle of the image.
Beyond this, my interest in more fine-scale weather has been solidified by my time studying in Vancouver. In the city, which is sometimes referred to as “Raincouver,” it’s rare to see the sun in winter. During these bleak, gray months I’ve found myself obsessively checking the forecast for when we may get a window of clear skies. This naturally morphed into an interest in what is driving those systems and a desire to more meaningfully understand how the weather works.
This desire, as well as my love of the White Mountains, led me to the Observatory. As my time here draws to a close, I can say with certainty that it’s been a summer I won’t forget. Life at the summit has been as interesting and variable as the weather. I’ve experienced my fair share of cool and extreme weather, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from and work closely with extremely knowledgeable people, and I’ve also had a lot of fun.
Highlights of the summer include waking up at 2:30 am to see the Northern Lights, struggling to walk in a 94 mph gust, trying to win over summit cat Nimbus, chatting with co-workers at our family style dinners every night, and many foggy hikes to and from Lakes of the Clouds Hut. As my last week at the Observatory draws to a close, I’ve been thinking back to that first week; I’ve learned so much between then and now, and I’m really grateful for my time at the Obs.
The Northern Lights visible from the summit on July 4, 2022.
In addition to various summit operation tasks, giving weather station tours, shadowing observations, and learning to write mountain forecasts, much of my time on the summit has been spent on a research project. Alongside Appalachian Mountain Club Intern Larz von Huene, I am updating the long-term wind and humidity trends on Mount Washington and exploring what impacts these trends may have on alpine tree lines.
The upper elevation at which trees can grow in the White Mountains is limited by conditions like wind and moisture, so by examining long term trends in wind and humidity, we can hopefully understand better how tree line may be shifting over time and implications for alpine ecosystems.
You may have noticed that there are a few parallels between the intertidal zone I was talking about earlier and tree line on Mount Washington. Mainly, in both environments, upper limits are determined by species’ ability to survive harsh conditions. On Mount Washington, these conditions just happen to be extreme wind and ice instead of the heat and bright sunlight that challenge intertidal organisms. This project is a clear example of the intersection between meteorology and biology, and how understanding weather and climate trends is an essential part of understanding ecosystems. It’s been really rewarding for me to bring a biological perspective to this weather-oriented project.
Naomi Lubkin, left, and Larz von Huene are shown around tree line on Mount Washington this summer.
To hear more about our research project, as well as the research project conducted by fellow MWOBS Intern Henry Moskovitz, join us for the Science in the Mountains™ virtual lecture on Tuesday, August 16th at 7pm. Click here for more information and to register for the Zoom session.

Naomi Lubkin, Summit Intern

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