I took my third trip through the Panama Canal earlier this week. Our lab is here for research, so we are heavily laden with equipment and materials for tree measurements. Here you can see us wrestling our luggage onto a small boat in Gamboa, preparing for our journey through the canal
Our boat navigated past many much large vessels, including this cargo ship and cruise ship, each bound for a different ocean. Our journey was much shorter, and took us only as far as Lake Gatún, which forms the center of the canal. Here our destination was one that would appear anonymous to most passengers through the canal, but one very well-known to ecologists: Barro Colorado Island. This is a small island dedicated entirely to scientific research, with a small field station and more than a thousand acres of preserved forest. Access is only by small boat, and the perimeter is patrolled day and night by forest guards. From a boat it looks much like any other obstacle to shipping, but to an ecologist, it is a natural home to do research. Here you can see us approaching the island’s research facilities.
Coming back to the island this year, I was thinking about the dangers of its scientific fame. Because it is such an attractive place to work, many scientists over the past ninety years have made a range of important discoveries on the island. On one hand, this is excellent, because these discoveries share a common landscape and can be linke to each other. But on the other hand, a disproportionate amount of scientific resources are being allocated to this one place. We know an immense about this one particular island, and very little about many other places in the world. We hope that the conclusions we take from this island are valid in other places. But because of the complexity of ecological systems, this may not always be the case. Historical contingencies (e.g. the flooding of the lake by humans, transforming a hilltop into an island) and spatial heterogeneity (the island is only five kilometers wide and only encompasses so many environments) may challenge our ability to scale up research done here. But the alternative – doing more research in more places – is challenging given the finite amount of research money and even more finite number of scientists. We must, for now, be content with what we have.
So our team is back, re-surveying this one section of forest on one island, and hoping that the conclusions made here will provide insight into the whole planet. It is an audacious but necessary hope. We are happily busying ourselves with the day-to-day realities of measurements, about which I will have much more to say in upcoming posts.