Many sciences have to have ethics committees and make tough choices about whether experiments can and cannot and should and should not be done, especially when dealing with things that are alive. Rocks happen to be a lot less alive. So you would have thought that geoscientists don’t often have to consider the ethics of their research. But sometimes they do.
I work with stalagmites, beautiful stalagmites, that take tens of thousands of years to grow. They are therefore pretty much irreplaceable. Removal of stalagmites from caves means that future generations won’t get to see them. And yet, as part of my fieldwork, I go into caves, hack off these beautiful formations using crude tools such as hacksaws and drills and take them away to the lab. It is, I will admit, not the most elegant way of doing things. And as a result, the protection of stalagmites is a question I get asked about a fair amount. I think it is important for the public to know why we justify what we do, and what we do to minimise the damage as much as possible.
The main mantra in our work is to only take what we need. We don’t remove any stalagmites, only those that have been growing during time-spans we are interested in, and haven’t been covered by previous extractions. To do this, involves a multi-trip process over many years. When we go into caves we identify suitable stalagmite, and drill into the base of them, to extract some powder. This powder is then returned to the lab and dated, so we know how hold the stalagmite is. Often we will also drill into the top of the stalagmite too, to gain a more detailed insight into the growth history. We also get a much better idea of how good quality material the stalagmite material is made of.
We then return to the field on a second trip, armed with a list of stalagmites we want to take. We leave the ones we don’t need, remove the ones we do (those of the best quality and most relevant ages), and take some more powders for the next trip. Stalagmites that have already been broken are usually removed if they look like they are of good quality.
There is also some physical repairs to the cave that we carry out. If there has been extensive damage by others of smaller stalagmites, we can super-glue stalagmites back onto their base. Some sections of the cave are covered in thin white calcite, which looks amazing. If we get this muddy by walking over it, then we take in jerry cans of water and scrub and wash the muddy sections. Yes, we really do wash the insides of caves! Of course the best way to avoid this, is to be as careful as possible with feet placement. In certain situations we will take off our boots and walk over clean sections in our socks.
Unfortunately, part of protecting stalagmites is not involving the local community. While we have the permission of the local land-owners and local elders, along with the highest level academic and beurocratic approval, we try not to let too many of the locals see what we’re doing. Stalagmites are both priceless and worthless, they have no monetary value, but the value of the data contained within is huge. If too many people know we are removing stalagmites, they might believe they have monetary value. This would leave to stalagmites being removed from the caves by locals (often for gravestones), thereby serving neither scientific value nor future tourist value. When in national parks, we also take with us a representative of the national park with us.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly there is the overall benefit of the science we do. The knowledge we will gain from these stalagmites with regards to past rainfall in Indonesia, and the better ability to predict future rainfall will serve a much larger benefit to Indonesia, both its peoples and its economy than the stalagmites will.
So yes, it is a shame to remove these stalagmites, and perhaps one day we won’t have to, but until then, we will do our best to minimise damage in caves and help preserve these beautiful specimens for the future. After-all, those who work on stalagmites, enjoy caves just as much as anybody else.