Thursday, June 16, 2016

10 Days of Karst: Day 10 -- Emerging Research Themes

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On this tenth and final day of karst I discuss emerging research themes in karst science. My previous essays on the 10 Days of Karst Series are linked at the bottom of this post.

Let me make something very clear. This is not your grandfather's karst science. While exploration remains important in many corners of the world, most researchers have moved away from exploration and now focus on high tech field and laboratory techniques to address some of most important research questions facing science today. Here are but a few emerging themes that I find very exciting.

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1. The role of karst in the carbon cycle. We know we have a problem with global climate change and that it is linked to anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We also know that carbonate rock and the solution of this rock are very much tied to atmospheric chemistry. How can we nudge the carbon cycle to help alleviate this problem? Can we find ways to use karst chemistry to scrub the atmosphere of excess carbon dioxide? Can carbonate rocks be created to store carbon dioxide? Can we find ways at carbon dioxide sources (power plants) to sequester carbon using karst chemistry?

2. Storage of pollutants in deep karst systems. There are many very deep carbonate systems in many portions of the world that contain extensive subsurface caverns. They have been looked at for years as places where we can store vexing pollutants like sewage. However, there is growing interest in looking at these systems as places for the storage of carbon dioxide. Where are these very deep karst systems? What is their potential for storing carbon dioxide? How safe is it? What are the chemical/pressure characteristics of these deep systems? How connected are they with overlying rocks?

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3. Martian settlement. The difficult climate of Mars makes establishing a permanent Martian research facility almost impossible. However, there are caves on Mars where conditions are mitigated by the subsurface environment. Where are caves on Mars? Is there potential for Martian life or water in them? How extensive are they (they are lava tubes)? Can we experiment with similar sites on Earth to replicate what it would take to set up a research station within a cave?

4. Drug discovery. In recent years, microbiologists have discovered many new microorganisms that live in the unique conditions found in caves that have the potential to provide a variety of opportunities for drug discovery. What microorganisms can be found in caves? What is their potential for replication under laboratory conditions? How can they be used to develop new drugs or new chemical compounds?

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5. Assessing prehistoric climate change. Caves store tremendous amounts of isotopic information in cave formations and sediments that help us puzzle out past climate change in specific geographic settings. How can we more accurately measure climate change using data collected from cave samples? How does climate change vary over long periods of time within specific geographic settings? Comparing data among caves, how variable is climate change within regions?

These are but a few of the kinds of emerging research issues that karst scientists are addressing. If you think I missed an important area, please add it to the comments of this post on the blog.

Below are links to previous posts in my 10 Days of Karst Series

Day 9. Major Research Themes

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