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Cave and Karst Institute Sets Ground-Breaking Ceremony, Nov. 17, 2008

By Thomas Guengerich

CARLSBAD, N.M., Nov. 17, 2008 – The National Cave and Karst Research Institute is one step closer to having a home of its own.

Carlsbad city councilors awarded a $5.2 million bid for the construction of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute to Greer Construction, a Carlsbad firm, in September. On Monday, Nov. 24, the partner agencies will gather for an official ground-breaking ceremony to mark the beginning of a new era for the Institute.

“All the partners are really excited,” said Carlsbad city administrator Harry Burgess.

Burgess, who is also a member of the Institute’s board of directors, said the ground-breaking ceremony represents an important milestone.

“The city has been supportive of the Institute every since it was designated by Congress and the city is very interested in seeing it have a permanent home in Carlsbad,” Burgess said.

The Institute is a non-profit corporation, collaboratively created and supported by a partnership between the National Park Service, New Mexico Tech and the City of Carlsbad.

Dr. George Veni, director of the Institute, said he’s excited about the building.

“Having a facility will make us fully functional,” he said. “Money we could use to hire additional staff is being set aside to outfit the building. The building is a huge hurdle. Once we’re past that, we can hire more people and really fly.”

The 17,315 square-foot building will be one-of-a-kind. In addition to exhibits, offices, a lab, library and bookstore, the Institute is the world’s first building designed to include a roost for a popular denizen of caves – bats.

The building is planned as an example of efficiency and low environmental-impact. Caves and karst landscapes contain some of the most fragile and vulnerable aquifers and ecosystems on Earth.

“It’s important for us to use a building that can serve as a model for living gently on the landscape,” Veni said. “While we’ll have our main exhibits focus on caves and karst, we’ll have many subtle exhibits notifying visitors about the features that are energy efficient or water efficient.”

“Karst” is a term that refers to a type of landscape formed mostly by the dissolving away of the bedrock over millennia. Fractures in bedrock, enlarged by natural slightly acidic water, become conduits for groundwater and habitat for a wide range of lifeforms.

“Karst is a landscape characterized by caves, sinkholes and underground streams,” Veni said. “You’ll find the largest springs in the world in karst because karst springs are fed by caves, which are essentially natural pipelines that can move a lot of water.”

Carlsbad was founded on its current site because of the availability of water.

“Without the Carlsbad Springs along the Pecos River, the city wouldn’t exist where it is,” Veni said.

Understanding karst is vital for hydrologic studies across about 25 percent of the U.S; however, karst is not well understood, even among many geologists, engineers, and land managers.

“I got my bachelor’s degree from a university built on top of a karst aquifer,” Veni said. “In all my classes, we spent maybe 30 to 45 minutes discussing karst and much of it was wrong. For my master’s and doctorate, I had to chase experts all over the country. Many people doing karst management and cave research don’t really understand it.”

Hence, the creation of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute. And where better to put such an institute than in the city most famous for caves – Carlsbad, New Mexico.

The Institute’s long-range mission is to conduct karst research and education, and develop sound management practices that have national and global implications – and to share that knowledge with anyone interested.

Initially, the two main areas of research are geology and biology – or, to be more specific, hydrogeology and geomicrobiology.

Dr. Lewis Land is the Institute’s hydrogeologist. His work focuses on underground water resources. Dr. Penny Boston, an Earth Science professor at New Mexico Tech specializing in geomicrobiology, is the Institute’s associate director of academics and focuses her research on microbial life found in caves. Along with a host of Tech students supported by the Institute, she examines how microbes affect cave development, potential pharmaceutical applications and the how life in caves might serve as an analog for life on Mars or other planets.

As the Institute develops and grows, Veni expects to form more partnerships with universities, government agencies and research institutes around the world.

“Some people might have worried about having too many cooks in the building’s design,” Veni said. “Quite the opposite. We had a lot of cooks refining this building into a real fine product.”

The Institute suffered several setbacks since receiving funds for the building in 2003, but all of the partners are relieved to finally be moving dirt.

“We’re just about there,” Veni said. “And I’m glad.”

– NMT –