25 February 2013

Adventures in science: Caving for climate clues

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — It might seem counterintuitive: To decipher ancient weather patterns, go underground for clues. But to MagLab researcher Darrel Tremaine, it makes perfect sense. For nearly four years, he’s been examining the caves in Marianna to understand more about them and the treasure chest of chemical climate clues they contain.

MagLab researcher Darrel Tremaine at the edge of a cave in Marianna, Fla.MagLab researcher Darrel Tremaine at the edge of a cave in Marianna, Fla.“There’s all kinds of information inside those caves,” the 33-year-old says. “You just need to know how to retrieve it.”

At the next Science Café on March 5, you’ll have a chance to hear about Tremaine’s underground sleuthing adventures and what he’s learned about caves and climate. The café at Ray’s Steel City Saloon, 515 John Knox Road, begins at 6:15 p.m. and wraps up by 7:30 p.m. Arrive early to grab a good seat and order something to nosh on.

You’ll hear about the adventurous side of Tremaine’s research: what it’s like to travel deep inside North Florida’s wet, dark and often dank caves and the other creatures that live in or visit the caves, too — the spiders, snakes, bats, rats, mice and raccoons. Maneuvering inside these underground spaces isn’t easy either.

Fortunately, the state-of-the-art tools he needs to peer inside the stalagmites are all available at the MagLab’s geochemistry department. He can use one of about a half-dozen incredibly powerful chemical-analysis machines — spectrometers — available at the lab to detect the trace elements locked inside the stalagmites.

“I’ve been through passages so tight I had to breathe out to squeeze through,” says the 155-pound Tremaine, who is getting his doctorate in chemical oceanography. “There are spots where you have to take your helmet off and turn your head sideways just to snake through.”

But what sends Tremaine into the caverns are the rock-hard formations that grow up from the cave’s floors— the stalagmites. Inside these natural crystal sculptures are trace elements and growth patterns that can reveal what the weather was like thousands of years ago. Each stalagmite contains a library of information, Tremaine says, if you just have the right tools to read it.

“There are only a handful of laboratories like the MagLab in the world,” says Tremaine, a graduate research assistant at the lab. “I’m fortunate to have access to the kind of machines we have here.”

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is the world’s largest and highest-powered magnet facility. Located at Florida State University, the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the interdisciplinary National MagLab hosts scientists from around the world to perform basic research in high magnetic fields, advancing our understanding of materials, energy and life. The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation (DMR-1157490) and the state of Florida. For more information, visit us online at nationalmaglab.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest at NationalMagLab.