Carlsbad cave scientist to head global group
Beneath Earth’s surface, evidence of the past and potential solutions for the future reside in thousands of caves across the planet. But little is known about the caves, as the science of studying and researching the hidden land forms, known as speleology, is young.
And even less is known about karst, a geological formation created when rock such as limestone dissolves, creating underground aquifers, caves and sinkholes.
Experts estimate karst covers about 25 percent of land in America, and most people have no idea.
George Veni, executive director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute located in Carlsbad, is hoping to fight ignorance of cave science on a global scale.
For the past eight years Veni served as vice president for the International Union of Speleology (UIS), headquartered in Slovenia.
Through the organization, Veni meets with experts from about 60-member countries at conferences.
At the most recent gathering of the union in Sydney, Australia, he was named president, the first American to lead the organization in its 52-year history.
Veni said he views the organization, and his election as president, as an opportunity to better educate the public on the importance and power of cave science, both at home and abroad.
By lobbying UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, he hopes to establish an international year of speleology, which would lead to educational activities and meetings to be held throughout the world.
“I’ve spent much of my 40-year career underground,” Veni said. “I see the value most don’t. What we want to do is educate people about karst. Why can’t we define karst? It shows a true lack of education.
“We’re not as far as I’d like to be, but things are changing. If we can get the international year, it will raise awareness throughout the world.”
But his new position isn’t only about making an impact on a global scale, Veni said.
By becoming president of UIS, Veni said the profile of Carlsbad’s scientific community could be raised through the institute.
And the heightened attention could bring more funding to the institute.
Veni said he has a vision to move all the records and office space at the institute to another location, converting the building into a museum that could drive up tourism and public awareness.
Cave science could unlock knowledge and strategies for dealing with climate change, Veni said, as the evidence of the changes to Earth’s climate can be extracted from ancient caves and karst.
Changes in karst aquifers can tell scientists how climate change affects water supplies, he said, while studying past conditions in ancient caves could help predict environmental shifts.
“Let’s deal with it. It’s here,” Veni said. “Cave science can teach us a huge amount.”
A better understanding of the science could lead to even more discoveries and catalytic research, he said.
“What we need to do as an international cause is make people aware of what cave and karst are,” Veni said. “We’re not trying to get people to go caving. What we’re trying to do is teach people that these things are important. They affect people.”