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Bermuda's underwater caves reveal secrets to scientist

Discoveries: The Bermuda Caver's Group, from the left, Leon Kemp, Gil Nolan, Paul Larrett, Pete van Hengstum, and Bruce Williams.

A Canadian scientist has conducted groundbreaking research on sea level and climate change while studying Bermuda’s underwater caves.Geologist Pete van Hengstum discovered that tiny organisms, called foraminifera, can provide clues for environmental change within the Island’s caves.Foraminifera have been documented all over the planet in the last 150 years and are responsible for making Bermuda’s sand pink, but his research is the first to describe the communities of foraminifera living in underwater cave habitats.His research also contributed to a dissertation and resultant PhD in Earth Sciences from Dalhousie University in Canada.The 28-year-old began researching underwater caves in Mexico in 2006, but only started working in Bermuda in 2008.He would spend one to two hours each day diving to collect samples in the dangerous, murky waters, with the help of local divers.After the samples were gathered, he spent an additional four to five hours a day processing the samples for transport back to Canada for further laboratory analysis.He said Bermuda was great for the research because of the “sheer diversity of different caves on the islands”.“Along the modern Bermudian coastline, you can see all the different stages of environmental development in the cave with respect to groundwater and sea-level,” he said.“Therefore, if we had a theory describing how and when cave environments evolve, then we would know which caves to target and explore for specific sediments records of sea-level and climate change.”He told The Royal Gazette that studying underwater caves can be “logistically challenging” and impossible without the support of locals.Dr van Hengstum thanked The Bermuda Cavers Group, particularly Bruce Williams and Gil Nolan, who dedicated weeks of their time SCUBA diving with him in the caves.He also said faculty from the Bermuda Museum, Aquarium, and Zoo, the Bermuda Zoological Society and (Environment) Ministry in Bermuda were instrumental in getting permits and supporting research from the outset.He also received “unwaivering support” from residents, including the Tucker Family, who gave him access to the cave entrances on private land, said Dr van Hengstum.“Underwater caves have been generally ignored in marine geological research, but the work from Bermuda firmly indicates that valuable climate and sea-level data is preserved in underwater cave sediment.”He is continuing with his research as a Post-doctoral Fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.