Eleanor Fosdick Downs, Pat Berger, and microbiologist Eli Dueker off Southport Island in 2008. Dueker co-authored a paper, published Thursday, that shows how microbes, including pathogens, are picked up by the fog and carried ashore. Credit: Courtesy of Eli Dueker

SOUTHPORT, Maine — While not the menacing mist Stephen King wrote about in the novella of the same name, researchers sampling fog off Southport have found that the heavy, damp fog that rolls through this midcoast island and elsewhere can carry microbes and pathogens picked up from the Gulf of Maine long distances and could be harmful to those with weak immune systems.

Eli Dueker, a microbiologist at Bard College and co-author of a recent study published Thursday in the journal Science of the Total Environment grew up in the Midwest and became familiar with Southport’s fog when he met his partner, Ilana Berker, and visited her family’s longtime summer home on the southwest coast of Southport.

Berker’s grandmother, Eleanor Fosdick Downs — “we call her Omi,” Dueker said — who will turn 107 on Sept. 19, bought the house with her sister in the 1930s and told Dueker stories of the fog, which he soon saw for himself.

When Dueker, now 47, began work on his Ph.D., he sought a location to test his hypotheses about microbes in the fog, and Omi’s house was the obvious choice — especially with a new baby that family members could adore while Dueker collected data.

“That summer, in 2009, was the foggiest summer in everyone’s memory,” Dueker said Tuesday. “I think some people still blame me for it.”

He created a weather station on the rocky spit at Heron Ledge facing Lower Mark Island, not far from Omi’s home, to collect high-resolution and accurate meteorological data.

Dueker used a biosampler, which “pulls air in and then collects that air into water and swirles it in a vortex sampler,” he said. “Everything that’s in the air ends up in that water.”

Fog being fog — “you can’t plan around it,” he said — Dueker remembers chasing the fog at 1 a.m.

“There were times the fog would not come in,” he said. “At times I was actually able to get Omi and my partner’s father all into a whaler. I’ll never forget racing around trying to catch the fog. Omi must have been 99 at the time.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Sarah Evans, a microbiologist at Michigan State University, was studying microbes in the fog of the Namib Desert in Namibia.

The desert, Evans told the Atlantic, is one of the driest places on earth, but with one of the foggiest coasts.

Fog researcher Kathleen Weathers, a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, connected the two scientists, and co-wrote the paper.

“The reason we got together to write this was to help move the study of fog forward,” Dueker said. “There are studies of fog in the Redwoods and in White Mountain National Park, but no one ha[d] actually looked closely at whether or not the fog could be creating this new opportunity for ecology in the atmosphere. The idea of there being a microbial ecology in the fog is something very new … bacteria are there as a community and they’re interacting. Think of air as formless and structureless, but fog creates a structure for bacteria to metabolize and grow.”

Dueker found that the fog picks up microbes from the ocean — anything from sewage to pesticides — and those airborne pathogens can cause respiratory infections in immunocompromised people.

Most immune systems can handle most pathogens, and some of the microbes may actually keep us healthy, he said.

And he’s quick to point out that his work “should not instill fear in anyone, only curiosity and better appreciation for the function of fog in the coastal Maine ecosystem and way of life.”

The research may actually be more important for those who live in more urban, polluted areas such as New York City, he said.

But he hopes the research, like that of Southport resident and well-known conservationist Rachel Carson, will remind people to work harder to keep air and water clean.

Dueker will continue his research, and continue to look at how climate change may affect the frequency of fog and shift where the fog forms.

“Obviously, the fog doesn’t make a lot of people sick or Maine wouldn’t be such an amazing place,” he said. “Fog is a very atmospheric construct. It’s really important and beautiful, and I don’t want anyone to be scared of the fog. But what we did find was that what is in the water can end up in the fog, and that makes it even more clear how important it is to keep our water clean … we know how, we are just sometimes lacking the political and personal will, and sometimes lacking funding.”

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