Sarah Truebe - 2014 CLIMAS Climate & Society Graduate Fellow
Sarah Truebe has always been a caver. She grew up thinking the only things people should take from caves are photographs, but as she began her career as a paleoclimate scientist, she realized that scientists often take a lot more than photographs.
A stalagmite is a cylindrical mineral deposit, formed over hundreds or thousands of years on the floor of a cave, making them utterly non-renewable on human timescales. Stalagmites contain valuable paleoclimate data; however, most of the time getting this information means permanently removing the stalagmite from the cave.
“As the popularity of stalagmite paleoclimate science grows, development of sustainable sampling methods for these nonrenewable resources is necessary to balance the needs of science and cave conservation,” Truebe said.
Truebe is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona and is also a 2014 recipient of the Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) Climate & Society Graduate Fellows Program. She used this opportunity to collect information on different stalagmite sampling methods, with the intention of developing best practice recommendations for extraction.
Truebe said the fellowship was very timely. “Over the last 3 years of my PhD I have been thinking more and more that I want to be doing is science that is not only directly relevant to stakeholders, but is actually something that is engaged with stakeholders,” Truebe said.
She surveyed scientists on the different methods they currently or ideally want to use to extract climate information from the stalagmites. She asked stakeholders about which of the methods make the most sense to use, given the many other uses for caves, including tourism, education, recreation, habitat for many organisms, and so forth.
There were a few popular methods mentioned by scientists
- The stalagmites can be cored, which leaves the majority of the structure intact;
- Broken or vandalized stalagmites can be permanently removed and analyzed;
- Intact stalagmites can be temporarily removed and analyzed, and then repaired and replaced, or they can also be permanently removed and archived after climate information has been extracted.
While there are a few more techniques, these are the most popular methods.
“I had already done all of the scientist surveys before I heard about the fellowship and so I said this is a really cool project and there is a lot of potentially interesting information here, so how can we really do a great job on the stakeholder side of things too?” Truebe said. “That was my intention in applying for the fellowship.”
The first survey covered which methods were being used or favored by these scientists. Truebe contacted 70 paleoclimate labs and received 45 responses to the survey, from 19 different countries.
The results showed that all of these scientists were removing the stalagmites from the cave permanently for sampling. While less than 25 percent were using other techniques, the main method was permanent removal.
From this study, Truebe found that one third of the scientists were not using their ideal or preferred method. She also found they had awareness of the need or importance of conservation, but that there is not time, incentive or funding to do anything differently.
A second survey was targeted at stakeholders, a group that included cave managers, state and federal agencies and recreational cavers. There were 110 competed surveys with this group and while surveys were submitted from eight different counties, most came from the U.S.
These results for this survey were quite different compared to the scientist’s survey. Permanent removal was a much less favored technique, while less-destructive coring was preferred. However, Sarah mentioned that coring isn’t always possible, depending on the geometry of the stalagmite.
After completing the surveys, Sarah built a framework that will give managers and scientists a place to start when wanting to sample in a more conservation-friendly way. Along with this framework, Truebe will be writing a journal article for The National Speleogical Society and for the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies.
While Truebe thinks that these outputs are necessary, she felt she needed something else to really get the conversation about new sampling techniques started. So she is also planning on holding two workshops, one on archiving that will primarily reach scientists and the other on developing new methods that will engage with interested stakeholders.
Truebe said she was a bit concerned going into the project. “Removing stalagmites is a very destructive process,” Truebe said. “So I was a bit nervous to send this survey out to the world wide caving community and say, “hey, there is this issue that you may or may not be aware of, what do you think about it?’”
She was also worried to send it to scientists, who might not want a spotlight put on their sampling methods, because many know that sampling is already at odds to cave conservation.
But she was pleasantly surprised that people weren’t defensive or resistant to having a discussion, and most were receptive to the idea of shifting to a more conservation-oriented perspective, and were interested in how to do sampling better. They were eager to find a compromise between what the scientists want and need to do for a robust analysis and what is good for the cave, long-term.
Truebe is excited to see how this affects the future of caving and cave paleoclimate science.
“Now we can actually engage with the uncomfortable feelings that I have been having about this type of work and that other scientists expressed to me in the survey,” Truebe said. “It is okay because we can study this and we can move forward.”
Truebe said the fellowship made this idea that she had been thinking about for a while, more real.
“I think that it has helped a lot, mainly because it has given much more credibility to the project, which until I received the fellowship was really just a thought experiment, or something like that,” said Truebe. “Because the project is credible as is, but it was nice to be able to say ‘hey, I’m not the only one who thinks so.’”