Waikato University scientist's cave study aims to measure climate change
Hidden in the deep recesses of the Earth lie valuable records of past climate change.
Waikato University school of science senior lecturer Dr Adam Hartland has been awarded an $800,000 grant to study speleothems - commonly known as cave formations - with the aim of measuring rainfall and air temperature variations over the past 10,000 years.
Hartland's five-year project will use cave monitoring, lab experiments and geochemical measurements to develop new records of the past climate.
It's hoped the research will inform efforts to better predict future climate change.
Hartland is the first Waikato University staffer to be awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.
Central to his work will be cave explorations that include Waipuna Cave, near Te Kuiti, as well caves in the South Island and across Australasia.
Caves were nature's vaults, Hartland said.
"They contain archives of Earth's past climate in deposits collectively termed speleothems. Common examples are stalagmites and stalactites, but many other cave formations can provide valuable insights which can inform our understanding of how our environment changes through time."
Hartland hoped the new records would alter people's understanding of cave science and the climate of the region.
His focus would be on the major climate mode of El Nino - Southern Oscillation (ENSO).
Similar cave investigations have been done overseas, but few were conducted in the Southern Hemisphere.
Hartland said New Zealand had lots of potential due its numerous cave systems.
Speleothems formed over many thousands of years and could potentially give long, highly detailed records of climate change.
"What's great about these cave environments is you go into them and study these actively forming deposits, rocks that are growing and almost seem alive.
"What we are doing is finding new ways of understanding the past climate change in a quantitative way, putting an actual number on past air temperature and rainfall amounts," Hartland said.
"The ultimate goal is to have a mechanical understanding of the climate that we can then use to forecast climate change on a scale that people experience. If we have a way of being able to predict what's going to happen with the climate, that has big implications for the primary sector."
The project's first step is to understand what's happening in the caves now, including measuring the rate at which water seeps through into the caves, recording CO^2 levels in the caves, and measuring air temperature.
That acquired knowledge would then be applied to help understand what occurred in the caves in the past.
"Ideally what we'll get is a really detailed record which allows us to say with certainty how wet and warm it was in the past, year to year, and use that to test and validate a model which can predict future climate changes and future rainfall beyond the limit of our current forecasting ability."