Longreads Best of 2020: Science and Nature

Our top picks in science and nature stories for 2020.

All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. We’ve searched through our archives to find the science and nature stories that take you into ancient forests, through dark swamps, to the bottom of the sea, and right up into the stars. 

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The Social Life of Forests (Ferris Jabr, The New York Times Magazine)

Old-growth forests in North America are like something out of a fairytale — huge trees, luminescent with moss, with boughs arching above your head, and “gnarled roots” beneath your feet, “dicing in and out of the soil like sea serpents.” And, as Ferris Jabr discovers in this story, the magic of these trees goes beyond what we see — with intricate fungal networks weaving them together into an inclusive community that links “nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species.” This is a fascinating piece that shows you these giant sentinels are more than you expect — more than just individuals. 

Jabr goes into the forest with Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia who has studied these systems and proved “a dynamic exchange of resources through mycorrhizal networks” between the two species of paper birch and Douglas fir. Her work has provoked a certain amount of controversy: “Since Darwin, biologists have emphasized the perspective of the individual … the single-minded ambitions of selfish genes.” Simard is proving this is not what is happening in old-growth forests; they are “neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society.” And trees are not just interacting with each other, “trees sense nearby plants and animals and alter their behavior accordingly: The gnashing mandibles of an insect might prompt the production of chemical defenses … Some studies have even suggested that plant roots grow toward the sound of running water.” 

A forest operating as a complicated, sharing society is a powerful notion. Not only does it garner more respect for this ecosystem, but it could prove that cooperation is as central to evolution as competition: “Wherever living things emerge, they find one another, mingle and meld.” 

The Mystery of Mountain Lions (Sarah Gilman, High Country News)

Last winter, Sarah Gilman saw a cougar near her home in Washington’s North Cascades: “… the cougar dropped to a crouch a few paces from me. It was still woolly with kittenhood, but big enough to send a chill down my spine.” She poetically describes the eeriness of knowing that an apex predator lives in her area, the feeling of being watched, the “sense of vertigo, disoriented by these fleeting brushes with a creature of foreign compass.”

Fascinated as much as fearful, Gilman joins Lauren Satterfield, a cougar researcher who comes to track her local cougars, bringing science into Gilman’s personal realm. Aided by a houndsman, they began a search — an important one, as  “chaotic as it looked from behind four retreating dog butts, studies like Satterfield’s have revealed patterns in cougars’ lives.” A lack of knowledge leads to exaggeration, and cougars have acquired a reputation for danger they do not deserve. They avoid humans as much as possible and favor wild prey over easier-to-catch domestic animals, “but perception still outweighs science on so many fronts.” In California, complaints “resulting in permits to kill cougars climbed steadily with human population growth … Then, after cougars killed two people in 1994, they ballooned … less to a rise in cougar activity than to hyper-vigilance stoked by fear.”

Science has slowly drawn this mysterious animal out of the shadows and into focus — not dispelling all irrational fear, but helping. In Washington, after years of study, sport hunt was restructured to preserve cougar social structures. Protecting them is significant, as cougars “build worlds” — with cougar-killed carcasses being “shown to sustain 39 species of scavenging mammals and birds, and 215 species of beetle.” This is something Gilman sees for herself,  when they find a cougar kill surrounded by “tracks in blood and shadow — magpie, raven, eagle — the traceries of wingtips brushing the drifts, a roil of life pouring in after the cat’s kill, shown clear on the canvas of winter.”

This is a beautiful piece, enhanced with wonderful drawings Gilman has done herself, and, in the end, her fear is replaced by reverence, as although still uncomfortable to be walking the same land as a cougar, she is also aware it is “a gift.”

The Drone Boat of Shipwreck Ally (Matthew Braga, The Verge)

Shipwrecks have always held a fascination in the human psyche, the mystery of the seabed where “ghostly hulls” of “twisted metal and weathered, blackened wood” lie is intriguing, precisely because that’s what it is — a mystery. Enter Ben, an autonomous boat who is learning to map sea floors, an area we know comparatively little about, with estimates that “we’ve mapped just 9 percent of the world’s oceans to modern standards.”

Ben is short for Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator, but the way Matthew Braga describes the boat, he is definitely a Ben, infused with a real sense of personality — a little engine that could, an intrepid explorer that goes where humans cannot. Ben is a “bright banana yellow” and “an ambitious little boat with its own challenges to overcome and opportunities to seize.”

This little boat still has a lot to learn, and is training in a stretch of water called Thunder Bay off Michigan’s northeastern coast. Braga joins one of the sessions where Ben is learning to “mow the lawn” — what oceanographers call the slow, tedious craft of making maps at sea. Braga’s accessible description of Ben trundling back and forth, learning “to understand and respond to the world around it,” is reminiscent of a Roomba robot vacuum, learning to clean the house without knocking over the cat bowl. But Ben has more to offer than a dust-free carpet — autonomous boats like Ben could gather an “unprecedented amount of data — data crucial to our understanding of climate change, and the effects it has had on everything from melting Arctic ice to undersea life.” The data that Braga sees sliding “into view like a side-scrolling video game” is the start of Ben’s contribution to answering such life-defining questions.

On a smaller scale, Ben can also turn detective — trying to solve decades-old mysteries, such as the crash site of “the long-lost plane of storied pilot Amelia Earhart.” Ben has already been sent to investigate, although is yet to find the answer. 

This is not the first autonomous boat, and certainly won’t be that last — so Braga’s exploration of this technology offers a clear insight into a scientific development that, in the not so distant future, will change our knowledge of the seas.  

An Atlas of the Cosmos (Shannon Stirone, Longreads)

This story continues the theme of maps — but on a much, much bigger scale. Shannon Stirone’s passion for the subject is apparent as, with a tone of reverence, she discusses a project “to make the most detailed 3D map of the universe.” The sense of perspective this piece provides is daunting: “… you and I are going about our days on an average rocky planet in just one of trillions of solar systems,” but rather than just making you feel small, Stirone provides a sense of wonder at what we are a part of.  

For as long as we have existed, “humans have been trying to understand themselves in the context of physical location.” One of the oldest maps in the world “shows us that the ancient Babylonians were trying to place themselves and their location into the greater unknown regions beyond their understanding.” Why do we crave to see beyond our boundaries, learn about what we do not understand? Perhaps this thirst for knowledge is the very essence of what makes us human. Stirone argues: “To know where you are at any given time is a frame of reference in which to measure your life.”

We are doing pretty well in this quest: “We know the Earth is about 4 billion years old, we know that 13.8 billion years ago there was nothing and then there was everything.” But there is still a lot we don’t know — and at the heart of that is dark energy. Called “dark because scientists simply cannot see it and they don’t really have any idea what it is,” it is “the dominating force in the universe which accounts for 70 percent of everything in existence” and is “responsible for expanding our universe outward at speeds of tens of thousands of miles per second.” Stirone visits the team at Kitt Peak National Observatory studying dark energy  — using DESI, the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument. The science is complex, but she manages to disseminate the difficult concepts — explaining how this team is “looking back in time at ancient light to better understand the story of the universe.”

The fact that this science, is, in fact, history, is somewhat mind-boggling; “the images we see of space are never from the present –– that light has taken billions or millions of years to reach us,” and DESI is “making a map of a universe that is constantly changing, forever expanding.” 

So what is the point of making a map that is out of date?  Stirone explains that “in order to know where we are going, we must first know where we have been,” and for humans, it is all about knowing. 

A Corridor Runs Through It  (Will Wellman, The Bitter Southerner)

There is a particularly striking image in this piece — an alligator that Will Wellman spots in a drainage ditch by a Florida gas station, “surrounded by trash — food wrappers, beer cans, plastic bags.” It is a visual representation of the plight of Florida wildlife.

Traveling as a child, Wellman was asked about his Florida home: “Is it just a big swamp down there? Are there alligators in your backyard?” Now the questions have changed: “Is it just a bunch of snowbirds down there? Are there golf courses everywhere?” Seemingly innocuous, these questions are poignant for Wellman, demonstrating the changes that Florida has gone through, and is still going through — from “wild green to lifeless gray” as every day “1,000 new people move to the state, and each hour, 12 acres of land is developed.”

Wellman’s sadness at what is happening to his home state is palpable, and his language hums with empathy for the creatures caught up in these changes. His writing also has an air of hopelessness, but Wellman is prepared to be convinced that something can be done by the team he is joining on a swamp expedition  — the Florida Wildlife Corridor team. Their aim is to prove that it isn’t too late to protect a continuous stretch of natural land throughout the state. What the animals have to deal with daily is insufficient connectivity, with “one of the leading causes of death for the endangered Florida panther” being “collision with vehicles.”

The team is joined by a documentary crew, something Wellman does not seem particularly comfortable with, especially when “some crew step over a cottonmouth, this one more than double the size of the last — earning gasps from these seasoned explorers,” but he accepts “that without the social media and documentaries, folks wouldn’t know about fractured landscapes and the value of wildlife corridors in Florida.” Despite the filming, there is still excitement going into the swamps, where Wellman feels the most alive: “… a sense of life fed by ever-present danger. Swamps are marked by death — all the rotting organic matter that mars its floor and gives it life — and by risk — every nook and cranny could hide snakes, gators, and more.” But then, in the middle of a dense swamp, the team hears a loudspeaker from Lowes, reminding them that the “wild-urban interface is razor-thin,” and, if nothing is done, all that will be left is alligators living in trash. 

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.