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This writing brought to you by Suzanne Nielsen.  For more articles by Suzanne, check out our Local News page for more articles from the Daily Herald correspondent.  

SABA—The chain of volcanic activity in the Lesser Antilles is a focal point for scientific study.  Geologist Dr. Thomas Pichler recently spent several days on Saba, prospecting for scientific sites for future exploration.

Pichler is a member of a small group of geologists specializing in underwater hot springs, or shallow-water hydrothermal systems. He is associate professor and research scientist at the University of South Florida (USF), Tampa, FL USF is a major center for environmental geology and its program spans undergraduate to doctorate degrees.

Much of Pichler’s work has taken place in a remote part of Papua, New Guinea, which is a time-consuming and expensive location for student field studies. He was investigating the possibility of study sites closer to home, which would be more economical for his students to access. Pichler’s two-week reconnaissance trip to the Caribbean took him to Dominica and Montserrat before Saba.

Dominica appears to offer the most potential of the three islands, since many close-to shore dive sites have vents and bubbles. One of the most famous sites called “Champagne” is actually within snorkeling distance. It is easy to see why it got its name: Underwater hot springs discharge carbon dioxide gas into the water column, which forms bubbles creating the illusion of a carbonated beverage or giant Jacuzzi.

Pichler did five dives on Saba and was impressed with the health of the underwater environment and the management of the Marine Park. He took temperatures and samples of the orange-colored sand seen on most Saban dive sites, which will be analyzed at the University. He speculates, however, that there is probably not enough activity to justify Saba as a scientific site for his students.

Vent Sampling

During his time on Saba, Pichler gave a public lecture about his work at the Monday evening lecture series sponsored by Sea Saba Dive Shop at the Brigadoon Restaurant.

Unusual discovery

Pichler’s work has received important international recognition and was the subject of a National Geographic film entitled “Poison Vents.” Just days before starting this trip, the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded him a $1.5 million grant for a four-year study of “Ecosystem Response to Elevated Arsenic Concentrations.”

The grant will allow Pichler to do further research in an area off the coast of Ambitle Island, one of the Feni islands in eastern Papua New Guinea. Ambitle Island is an active island arc volcano that last erupted 2,000 years ago. Pichler discovered an abnormally high concentration of arsenic there around the underwater hot springs in 1994.

Pichler was in the area doing work as a consultant. He took routine scientific samples of temperature, water, gas, sediment, corals, and rocks. When the samples were analyzed, he was amazed at the results:  the coating on some orange-colored rocks taken from the mouth of the underwater springs contained minerals called iron oxyhydroxides that contained high levels of arsenic, up to 8%, or 200 times what was expected.

The arsenic in the super heated fresh water escaping from the underwater vent precipitated out onto the rocks surrounding the vent when the fresh water hit the cooler seawater.  Arsenic is a naturally occurring element and is present in more than 100 minerals. High doses of arsenic are fatally toxic. It was the poison of choice in the 19th century since its presence was difficult to detect. In smaller doses, arsenic was used in the treatment of syphilis and parasitic diseases. Today, arsenic is a main ingredient in herbicides and pesticides. Its occurrence at the study site presents to danger to the scientist-divers working in the area, Pichler reassured.

It is known that hot springs often liberate arsenic from underground fluids and other toxic elements. Coal and uranium mines have used oxyhydroxides for years to clean up waste on mining slag heaps. However, no one knew that iron oxyhydroxides could absorb so much: about 10 times the amount of arsenic previously estimated.

"This is the first time that something like this absorption has been shown to work on such a large scale in nature," says Pichler.

Two things astounded Pichler: the extremely elevated percentage of arsenic and that the coral and marine life in the area did not seem to be affected by the high concentration of arsenic. Marine life was plentiful and the live coral appeared healthy. Coral skeletons had not taken in any arsenic. This was determined by drilling into the corals and taking core samples. These cores show rings, just like tree rings, which indicate age and activity over the changing seasons.

Applied science
The study for NSF will take a closer look at the effect of the presence of arsenic on microscopic animals. Pichler will put together a multi-disciplinary team of four scientists and four PhD candidates, made up of two geo-chemists and two biologists.

Pichler’s findings may have a great impact for applied research, such as improved treatments for arsenic-contaminated water. There are communities particularly in the Third World where arsenic is slowly poisoning populations. Pichler said that there are areas in Bangladesh, for example, where it is a known cause of death. He is hopeful that an inexpensive system could be devised to clean up the water using information that his research will reveal.

“Studying the natural environment is crucially important for us,” he concluded.

This page last created on 06/07/2004 from our Windwardside office.


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