NCKRI Grants Overview
In 2019, NCKRI initiated new grant programs designed to facilitate and support cave and karst research at academic and research institutions across the United States. These funding opportunities are made possible by generous support from the National Park Service. Three grants are offered:
- NCKRI National Seed Grants Program. Enables investigators to initiate new cave and karst research as well as encouraging new principal investigators to enter the field.
- NCKRI Scholar Fellowship Program. Supports cave and karst research by exceptional graduate and undergraduate students.
- NCKRI-NMT Internal Seed Grants Program. Allows investigators at NCKRI and New Mexico Tech (NMT) to initiate new cave and karst research, and expand NCKRI’s research footprint by enhancing collaborations with NMT faculty and students.
For information about these grants, their requests for proposals, current deadlines, and application instructions, please visit: https://www.nmt.edu/research/organizations/nckri.php
Information on recent awards is found below:
NCKRI Scholar Awards
Heidi Aronson, PhD Candidate, University of Southern California
Geochemical and Cultivation-Based Investigation of Gypsum-Hosted Microbial Communities in the Frasassi Caves, Italy
The karst at Frasassi, Italy, hosts a dynamic sulfur cycle which powers microbial chemolithotrophy. While many geochemical niches at Frasassi have been studied extensively, much less is known about the geochemistry and microbial communities associated with gypsum deposits. Ms. Aronson is measuring the concentrations of sulfide, thiosulfate, sulfite, elemental sulfur, polysulfides, and calcium within the gypsum deposits. These concentrations will be used to calculate the energetic yields of reduction-oxidation reactions involving sulfur to determine which reactions could power microbial metabolisms. One reaction, sulfur comproportionation (the reaction of sulfate and sulfide to form elemental sulfur), is a novel microbial metabolism that has not yet been discovered in the environment. It is thermodynamically favorable within Frasassi gypsum and could plausibly be used as a source of energy for microorganisms. Ms. Aronson is designing a cultivation medium using in situ geochemical conditions to enrich for and isolate a sulfur comproportionator from the gypsum. Her work will help to reveal the contributions of gypsum-associated microbial communities to the overall sulfur cycle at Frasassi, and how their metabolism may impact cave formation.
William Coleman, PhD Candidate, Texas State University
Variance in Genetic Diversity of an Endangered Freshwater Beetle Before and After an Adverse Climatic Event
Adverse climatic events, such as severe drought, can have devastating effects on aquatic ecosystems. For animals restricted to habitats such as karst spring complexes, prolonged droughts may result in decreases in population size and a rapid loss of genetic diversity, reducing fitness in populations. Mr. Coleman is investigating the potential impacts of severe drought on an aquatic endangered species known from only two karst spring complexes in central Texas. He is characterizing and comparing genetic diversity of the Comal Springs Riffle Beetle (Heterelmis comalensis) in the Comal Springs complex, before and after a 2010-2015 drought. During this drought, different openings in the complex experienced partial or complete drying, based on spring opening elevations. Mr. Coleman is also investigating changes in genetic diversity in the San Marcos Springs population (which experienced less severe drought effects) over approximately the same time-scale. These data will allow him to quantify temporal variance in genetic diversity within and among populations at individual spring openings, and within and among populations at the Comal and San Marcos spring complexes. Next-generation DNA sequencing will be used to generate the genomic data, which will then be used to quantify changes in effective population size. This information is needed to understand the effects of adverse climatic events on endangered karst-spring endemic organisms, and to inform effective conservation and management.
Natasha Sekhon, PhD Candidate, The University of Texas at Austin
Decoding Dry and Wet Conditions in Semi-arid New Mexico by Studying the Mineral Deposits in a Cave
The state of New Mexico relies on rain and snowfall to replenish its numerous but depleting aquifers. These aquifers form a vital artery on which numerous livelihoods depend. Recent studies have shown drastic decrease in the water levels of the Rio Grande and a rapid temperature increase in New Mexico as it becomes the 6th warmest state in the United States. The interplay between climate and hydrology of the region dictates the oscillation between drought and non-drought periods. Instrument records, going back to the early 20th century, allow us to study dry and wet periods for that time period. In order to glean pre-instrumental climate change, which would advance our understanding of the regional climate, scientists study the chemistry of cave deposits.
Ms. Sekhon’s PhD research is largely focused on understanding how pre-instrumental dry and wet periods have changed through time by investigating the various mineral concentrations of cave deposits in southeastern New Mexico. Trickling rainwater, carrying surface minerals with it, flows through the rock above caves. The rainwater eventually makes its way into the subterranean world where it gets deposited as stalagmites and stalactites over tens to hundreds of years. Similar to tree-rings, as stalagmites grow, each stalagmite growth ring encapsulates important chemical clues on what the climate was like above the cave. By looking at numerous mineral concentrations in the growth rings, Ms. Sekhon will establish a paleoclimate record on how dry and wet periods have changed through time in such a drought sensitive region. The first step is to investigate stalagmites that grew overlapping with instrumental data, permitting researchers to make robust relationships between the chemical clues (proxies) and known instrumental data. On establishing this relationship, we can then look at stalagmites that grew much before the instrumental period (pre 1930s), thereby, equipping us with tools to investigate hydroclimate trends through time.
NCKRI Seed Grants
Dr. Elizabeth Hasenmueller, Associate Professor, Saint Louis University
Quantifying Microplastic Debris Transport and Sourcing for a Karst Aquifer
Karst aquifers are unique habitats and important drinking water sources, but high connectivity between the surface and subsurface in these systems makes them susceptible to contamination. Agricultural runoff and leaking wastewater infrastructure can impair karst aquifers with biological (fecal bacteria) and chemical (nutrient and toxic metal) pollutants, but they may also be significant sources of emerging contaminants like microplastics (plastics that are smaller than 5 mm in diameter). Plastic debris can cause significant harm to aquatic life when organisms become entangled in the plastics or consume them. Little is known about the transport and sourcing of microplastic contamination in karst aquifers, with only a single previous study noting the presence of microplastics in karst groundwater during periods of low flow. Further research on microplastic contamination of karst is therefore critical given that karst aquifers experience rapid changes in flow during flood events, are highly connected to the surface where pollutants are sourced, offer unique habitats, and provide drinking water. Thus, this study will quantify and characterize microplastics (including their size, shape, and polymer type) in a karst aquifer under variable flow conditions. We hypothesize that microplastic loads increase during flood events as the higher flow mobilizes material from the surface into the aquifer and, potentially, from stores within the aquifer. We will use sediment characteristics and dissolved organic carbon concentrations to establish if microplastics are sourced from the surface and/or remobilized from within the aquifer. Additionally, we will test if microplastics co-occur with chemical tracers indicative of human inputs from agriculture, wastewater, or roads. The study also intends to help resolve an ongoing need in the microplastics community to standardize procedures for monitoring microplastic debris, especially for groundwater systems where there is very limited prior work and lack of quality control measures. Our research will provide a baseline for future work related to the transport and fate of microplastics in karst and groundwater environments and can be used to inform debris mitigation strategies.
Dr. Dylan Ward, Associate Professor, University of Cincinnati, and Co-PI Rachel Bosch, PhD candidate, University of Cincinnati
Stream Capture From Below: Formation of the Sinkhole Plain, Kentucky, Through the Lens of Relict Topography
In areas with many closely spaced sinkholes, such as the Sinkhole Plain near Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, surface river networks cannot develop, because streams encounter sinkholes and their water and sediment (silt, sand, and gravel) are all carried into the subsurface system of cave passages (karst network). As limestone layers are revealed by river networks in higher up, younger rock layers, those river networks become increasingly disrupted by development of sinkholes in the underlying limestone, and progressively more of the sediment eroded from overlying layers must be transported through the developing karst network. In our study area of central Kentucky, multiple tributaries to the Barren River were cut off from below by the development of sinkholes and cave passages in the Sinkhole Plain, and diverted to flow to the Green River, migrating the drainage basin boundary between the Barren and Green watersheds westward over time. This project will use modern geomorphic tools to evaluate the quantity of rock that must have been removed from the landscape via sinkholes and karst passages to form the modern Sinkhole Plain, the time over which this occurred, and the consequences for the regional river systems.
NCKRI Internal Seed Grants
Dr. Thomas L. Kieft, New Mexico Tech Biology Department
Culture-Independent High-Throughput Analysis of Viral Communities in Carlsbad Cavern Pools
The biology of caves has received considerable attention from the scientific community, particularly with regard to cave microorganisms and animals. However, very few cave studies have focused on viruses, which are the most common biological entities on Earth. Viruses that infect bacteria (bacteriophages) are likely to be the most numerous in caves. Characterization of the viruses in caves will increase our knowledge of cave biodiversity and will also further our understanding of nutrient cycling. Viruses lyse host cells, thereby releasing nutrients for uptake by other cells. The objectives of this study are (1) to quantify viral particles in cavern pools relative to prokaryotic cells, (2) to generate a large database of cavern pool viral sequences, and (3) to test for human impacts on cavern pools as evidenced by the viral communities. Hypotheses to be tested are that (1) viral abundance is ten-fold higher than prokaryotic cell abundance in cavern pools, (2) cavern pools contain novel viral sequences, and (3) viral communities in pools from developed portions of a cave are distinct from those of pools in undeveloped parts of the same cave. It is proposed here to sample water from cavern pools in a karstic system. Samples will be collected from pools near tourist paths and away from tourist traffic to test for human impacts on the viral genomes (viromes). Viruses will be concentrated from cavern pool water, and then DNA will be extracted at New Mexico Tech. The DNA will then be sequenced, followed by bioinformatic analysis. Bacteria will also be quantified in the cavern pools. Students will be engaged in all aspects of the research. Outreach activities will include K-12 lectures and posters on cave microbiology.
Dr. Talon Newton and Scott Christenson, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources
Estimating the Local Water Balance in Snowy River Passage, Fort Stanton Cave, New Mexico
The proposed study aims to increase our understanding of the hydrogeology of Fort Stanton Cave by assessing the local water balance for a flood event in Snowy River Passage. Since the discovery of Snowy River Passage in 2001, Fort Stanton Cave, located in southern New Mexico, has become a world-class cave. There are many exceptional aspects of Snowy River, including the white calcite formation that lines the stream bed along most of the known length of the passage, making it the longest speleothem in the world. Over the last twenty years, cave explorers and researchers have been collecting geologic, hydrologic and geochemical data, with the objective of identifying the water source(s) associated with several ephemeral floods that have been observed in Snowy River Passage. Recently, researchers from New Mexico Tech, University of New Mexico, and the US Geological Survey have constructed a preliminary hydrogeologic conceptual model of Snowy River based on existing data sets. According to this model, Eagle Creek is the primary source of water that periodically floods Snowy River Passage. During times of high stream discharge in Eagle Creek, enough water infiltrates through the streambed sediments to initiate flooding in the passage. Much of this water ends up discharging at Government Spring and flows into the Rio Bonito. Water in the Snowy River stream is also lost to downward leakage and evaporation.
The main objective of this study is to examine hydrogeologic processes in Snowy River Passage by analysis of individual flood events. For a specific flood event, we will measure:
- The volume of water that infiltrates downward through the Snowy River streambed
- The volume of water that evaporates from the Snowy River stream
- The volume of water that discharges at Government Spring
These measurements will allow the calculation of the volume of water that infiltrated from Eagle Creek to initiate flooding in Snowy River Passage. These water balance calculations will help to test our current conceptual model and constrain a two-dimensional hydrologic flow model that is being developed.
Another objective of this study is to build a pan evaporimeter that records continuous data in the cave to accurately estimate evaporation rates in high-humidity caves. This instrument will be a useful tool to study microclimates in other caves in arid regions, presenting opportunities for future collaborative projects. Monitoring evaporation rates in humid caves in arid areas can provide information about the effects of climate change on cave microclimates.