Professor explores changes in the Namib Desert

Posted by Sarah Barry

Kyle Nichols of the Geosciences Department with colleague Paul Bierman of the University of Vermont traveled to Namibia this summer to study the effects of the 'flood of record' in Namibia's desert.

Nichols' specialty within geoscience is geomorphology. "I study the rate of the earth's surface changes - the way that the earth naturally changes due to floods, landslides and earthquakes, but also how quickly it changes due to humans," Nichols said.

Nichols has studied these changes in parts of the world including Panama, the Grand Canyon and Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The goal for each location is to compile the background rates of change in the landscape.

Namibia, a country in southern Africa is one of the driest places on earth, and the Namib Desert is the oldest desert on earth at tens of millions years old. Nichols has been traveling and studying the area for over 10 years. "I was originally interested in quantifying how quickly the earth is eroding. There are large rivers hundreds of miles long with no water - they're just dry channels," Nichols said. In April and May 2011 Namibia experienced its flood of record, the largest recorded flood in modern human history. The rivers flowed all the way to the ocean for the first time in about 50 years.

Nichols and Bierman's previous research worked to establish the rate at which the landscape was changing by collecting sediment samples. On the most recent trip, they recollected every sample from previous research, around 80 samples in total. "We test the samples to see if we reproduce the same results we found before and find out where the sediment is traveling from" Nichols said.

The research explores the implications of the changes to Namibia's landscapes. "You can imagine that people living in desert environments are living on the edge and in fragile environments. If more sediment is eroded it may tip the balance for the areas that are the most sensitive to these floods and make the area uninhabitable," Nichols said.

There are also larger implications to these types of weather changes. "The bigger question is how these intense floods change the sensitivity of the landscape and how people live on it," Nichols said.

Nichols was in Namibia when Hurricane Irene hit the east coast. "These events ‘seem' to be happening more frequently. We experienced these events simultaneously on opposite ends of the world," Nichols said.

Nichols and Bierman were awarded a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation because of their preexisting research. "Since we had background data when these events happened we were able to return and collect what are called temporal replicates. There's not another data set of this size that has been collected over the decade," Nichols said.

"What we have is an estimate of how the landscape is behaving. Using the newly collected samples we will check to see if the results reproduce themselves after the flood of record. If they do it's good for science, if not, we have to deal with the messy reality of the flood and try to understand our methodology better to see what is really happening and what's just noise," Nichols said.

It will take anywhere from six months to a year to analyze the body of samples collected. The research measures isotopes in the sand, specifically radiogenic isotopes. Some of the lab work is done at the University of Vermont, some at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and some of the isotopes are measured here on Skidmore's campus. "When we finish we'll have more questions than answers, but that's science," Nichols said.

Nichols cannot yet say where the research will go in the future. Further work hinges on the results of the current study. "We'll have to see what our results show, what questions they produce and how we can address them. Then, it depends on if we get the funding to do more research. The questions have to be interesting enough that people want to find out more," Nichols said.

Nichols is also interested in the relationship between media and science. "Namibia's story has been picked up by some media," Nichols said. However, Nichols is also working on another project in Australia that he feels is potentially easier to understand, is interesting and is more tangible. "I think more people can understand that pollution and sediment traveling to the Great Barrier Reef is bad. It's a question of what do the media and what do people find interesting," Nichols said.

Nichols recognizes that there is a disconnect between scientific research and the general public. "Potentially, the most interesting or important research isn't highlighted. As a whole, scientists do not always do a good enough job relating scientific research to the public, in large part because it's hard," Nichols said.

For Skidmore, Nichols explained how students have ample opportunity to do research on campus. "A lot of my colleagues are doing interesting research specifically with students. A lot of painstaking work happens in labs that no one sees," Nichols said.

Nichols, who attended the University of Washington, worked as a field assistant as an undergraduate, but found fewer opportunities for research. "My students actually do the research process and some students are co-authors on publications. It's not surprising that the vast majority of people who go on to do doctoral work attend schools like Skidmore," Nichols said.


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