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Exploring blue holes

In a National Geographic-sponsored presentation augmented with vivid images of his deepwater dives into the Bahamas’ famed blue holes, Rosenstiel School Associate Professor Kenny Broad last Saturday gave a standing room-only audience at UM’s Storer Auditorium an in-depth look at these mysterious caverns, which could shed new light in fields such as natural history, microbiology, and climate change.

Kenny Broad discusses the scientific importance of blue holes at last Saturday's National Geographic-sponsored program.

On Saturday, September 25, the University of Miami became only the fifth university to be visited by National Geographic as part of its Young Explorers program. By 7:15 p.m. not one seat was left in Storer Auditorium for the scheduled 7:30 lecture by National Geographic Society (NGS) and North Face explorers John Francis, VP of Research, Conservation and Exploration at NGS; Kenny Broad, NGS Emerging Explorer and UM professor; and North Face athlete Peter Athans, who were on the Coral Gables campus to describe and share footage from adventures both underwater and in exotic locales around the globe.

The evening’s free, standing-room-only public presentation was the culmination of a daylong workshop for South Florida students, also held at UM. National Geographic’s Young Explorer grants support 18-to-25-year-olds in their pursuit of research, exploration, and conservation-based field projects. “We chose the University of Miami because of its long history with the National Geographic Society, which has awarded 51 grants to 21 scientists, beginning as far back as 1960,” said Francis. “Interdisciplinary approaches, like those of UM’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, have grown significantly in recent years, yielding new ideas and exciting one-of-a-kind projects to support.”

The UM workshop, hosted by UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Abess Center, and School of Communication, with support from the National Geographic Society, the Brinson Foundation, Kiehl’s, and North Face, enabled students interested in pursuing Young Explorer grants to meet with recent grant recipients and National Geographic explorers, conservationists, and researchers to learn about the kinds of projects the program aims to support. They also discussed their ideas for field projects with National Geographic grantees and staff.

“This campus was buzzing,” said Jan Nijman, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of geography and regional studies and a member of the NGS Committee for Research and Exploration, during the evening’s introduction.

During the packed lecture, Francis, who pioneered the use of the “Crittercam” (a research tool worn by animals in the wild to obtain video and audio recordings and environmental data), shared a teaser preview of National Geographic’s Great Migrations documentary series, which begins November 7. He also introduced as “one of my heroes” Broad, the Rosenstiel School associate professor and Abess Center director who conceived of and led a challenging expedition to study underwater caves and blue holes in the Bahamas. “He keeps us on our toes,” Francis told the crowd. “He explores the extreme of the extreme—and we see it all at National Geographic.” Citing Broad’s efforts to also engage society in environmental issues, he called the director of the Abess Center a “potent individual. The fact that he is focused on how to move people to action makes him very important to us.”

Broad, whose UM-led expedition was stunningly depicted in National Geographic magazine’s August 2010 issue, explained that the Bahamas and its blue holes offer a global microcosm from which to address three major questions: What is the origin of life? How has life evolved in the Caribbean? And how stable is our climate system?

Broad showed photos and videos of his crew embarking on answering these scientific mysteries by descending hundreds of feet and traversing pitch-black crevices through waters teeming with toxic gases and oxygen-sapping bacteria and microbes. To find their data-rich targets, they travel by boat, truck and helicopter; hack through dense brush and slosh through muck; use remote sensing equipment; and conduct good old-fashioned conversations with locals on the ground. Often they carry as much as 1,000 pounds of gear, fight furious current reversals and silt storms, and prepare to the nth degree for any possible drastic situation that might arise. “Do sweat the small stuff,” explains Broad. The payoff: Access to a 3.5 billion year old time capsule’s worth of scientific evidence, the chance to discover multiple species no one’s encountered before, and moments of indescribable beauty and serenity.

“In addition to the scientific value of these caves,” said Broad, “underground aquifers are critical reservoirs of fresh water on a global scale. Like many out-of-sight out-of-mind situations, they are largely ignored and are threatened by overuse, pollution, and increasingly, sea-level rise.”

Broad brought together a crack team of cave divers, led by renowned explorer Brian Kakuk, scientists from various fields, and a specialized film team led by the late Wes Skiles—a renowned filmmaker, conservationist, and cave explorer—to collaborate throughout the expedition’s more than 150 dives. On deeper descents they used mixed gases rather than just compressed air, replacing nitrogen and oxygen with helium to avoid nitrogen narcosis (or what’s commonly known as “rapture of the deep,” in which you get an impaired sense of judgment and suffer oxygen toxicity). They also use rebreathers, which allow them to dive deeper and stay down for extended periods of time.

Broad worked closely with Nancy Albury, project coordinator and paleontologist from the National Museum of the Bahamas, UM colleagues such as geochemist and professor Peter Swart, whose focus was dating and isotopic analysis of stalagmites to reconstruct past climate changes back nearly 500,000 years, and Amy Clement, associate professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the Rosenstiel School and Broad’s wife, who has analyzed the data in the context of current theories on abrupt climate change. Other core team members include marine biologist Tom Iliffe from Texas A&M University, astrobiologist Jenn Macalady from Penn State University, and paleontologist Dave Steadman from the University of Florida. Several UM students also assisted in the expedition, which was funded by NGS, the National Museum of the Bahamas, and the National Science Foundation.

Their work has helped to uncover significant findings related to the past history of the Earth, including human occupation, previously undiscovered microbial life, and abrupt climatic changes. An hour-long NOVA PBS special, titled “Extreme Cave Diving,” offers a close-up view of the experience.

Closing out the two-and-a-half-hour presentation was Seattle-based high-altitude mountaineer Pete Athans. Sometimes called “Mr. Everest,” Athans shared multimedia highlights and anecdotes from his journeys to Nepal’s remote Kingdom of Mustang, where he has helped academics to recover pre-Buddhist antiquities, stowed in ultra-remote, above-ground caves and threatened by looters and the elements.

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