Have you ever read a book that ends with a cliffhanger? You can tell the entire story is building up to some grand, exciting finale. You have so many questions you’re dying to answer, so many plot twists you can’t wait to have resolved.

Then BAM. The novel unexpectedly, prematurely ends. You’re left in agony, wondering how everything resolves.

Today is my last day in Zion National Park as a Scientists in Parks Fellow. Friends: my research here is ending as a cliffhanger.

A thriving toxic algal mat. This is a species of Microcoleus. Photo credit: Brady Richards

Let’s talk about toxic algal mats. They’re in the park. Their growth was accelerating. Toxin levels were rising. New species and growth forms were being discovered. The situation appeared dire.

Then, right as we’d begun to lose all hope (see what I mean about climactic arc??), the hero appeared. Seemingly out of nowhere, despite rumors it was dead and gone, the Zion monsoon season swept in. It flash flooded. It scoured. It made the Virgin River all turbid and inhospitable for cyanobacteria growth.

A NPS scientist collects samples. Silt-filled river water results from monsoon rains and upstream flooding. Photo Credit: Hannah Bonner

This past month has been a heated battle. The toxic algal mats clung tenaciously to rocks and riverbank. You would think they had all been washed away…but then the sediment would clear and there would be more algal mats than ever before. But the monsoon didn’t give up. It kept raining and raining and raining. It is currently raining. This entire next week it’s supposed to still be raining. The Virgin River is a muddy mess. Will the toxic algal mats survive this? Will the monsoon pull through? Who will emerge victorious?

I don’t get to find out.

Rather, it is with much dismay that I face a cliffhanger. I close this chapter of my research still brimming with questions and anguishing over unresolved outcomes.

Research cliffhangers are hard. However, research cliffhangers aren’t necessarily bad. A cliffhanger indicates that the scientific narrative experienced was rich and engaging. A cliffhanger shows that the researcher (in this case, me!) got to be deeply involved. And a cliffhanger doesn’t mean resolution isn’t possible – rather, it opens the door for an even more satisfying sequel.

I’ll be back Zion!