Robert Brinkmann, Professor in the Department of Geology, Environment, and Sustainability at Hofstra University, discusses what caves have to tell us about our planet – and even Mars and beyond.
Dr. Robert Brinkmann is Hofstra University’s director Sustainable Studies and Vice Provost for Scholarship and Engagement. He serves as Chair of the Board of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute.
Dr. Brinkmann came to Hofstra in the fall of 2011 as the director of the Sustainability Studies Program and a professor in Hofstra University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability. He is also the director of sustainability research in the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, which enables him to expose students to real-world sustainability issues. He includes students in Center-based research projects, events and meetings that address sustainability concerns in suburban landscapes.
During his time in Florida, Dr. Brinkmann focused his geological research on karst topography, which is the basis for sinkholes. Karst topography is a landscape created when groundwater dissolves sedimentary rock such as limestone, which is very porous; sinkholes form when limestone dissolves bedrock and the overlying land surface collapses. Florida is the only U.S. territory comprising a landscape that is entirely karst.
“As a geologist and non-native resident of Florida, I was interested in the state’s topography and found very little information out there, so I conducted my own investigations,” explained Dr. Brinkmann. He is among only a few investigators in the country who examine karst topography.
In his comprehensive book, Florida Sinkholes: Science and Policy, Dr. Brinkmann explains how sinkholes form and what to do about them. He examines case studies of notable sinkholes and reviews practical concerns like structural damage, repairs and insurance problems related to sinkholes.
Dr. Brinkmann is eager to engage students in sustainability issues outside the classroom, particularly energy, pollution and food. He’s spearheaded several research programs on Long Island examining soil and sediment pollution. And he is a key player in the Long Island Food Conference, hosted by Hofstra, which affords students the opportunity to interact with top researchers and speakers on issues related to food and sustainability.
When he is not teaching or doing research, Dr. Brinkmann spends much of his time writing to try to educate the general population on issues of sustainability. He is one of the associate editors of the Journal of Cave and Karst Studies and the editor of the Suburban Sustainability journal. In addition to his book on Florida sinkholes, he is also the author of Urban Sediment Removal: The Science, Policy, and Management of Street Sweeping and has published numerous journal articles.
The recent visit of President Obama and the First Family to Carlsbad Caverns National Park comes at a time of a major renaissance for cave research in the U.S. Most picture cave research as explorers, but today’s underground researchers are helping to puzzle out many important issues that occupy our society. As we do, our nation needs to work to preserve and protect them.
Caves in the U.S. hold important clues—clues that cannot be found anywhere else in nature—to our own planet as well as our Solar System. Take human exploration of Mars for instance. When NASA researchers were trying to figure out how to keep astronauts safe on the inhospitable Red Planet, they quickly realized that Martian caves would be great sites for base camps and identified caves on Earth that closely replicated the conditions of those on Mars. They used them to evaluate subsurface conditions and perform a litany of crucial research. We need to understand how to live in caves on Earth if we are to do so on Mars.
Caves also provide opportunities for mitigating global climate change. Speleologists are studying how deep caves can be used for carbon sequestration or how the carbon cycle can be modified to enhance carbonate rock formation. Plus, cave formations such as stalactites contain isotopic information about past climate conditions that date back much further than ice cores and tree rings.
Due to their geologic isolation and the extreme competition for resources, caves represent vast potential for the discovery and identification of new drugs. Currently 99.8 percent of all antibiotics we use come from microorganisms found in the environment; cave biologists are actively on the search for new cures for diseases.
The public’s perception of cave science has matured in the last few decades. No longer are caves mysterious unknown landforms ripe for exploration. Today, they are the subject of important scientific research that is changing the world, and, as the President and his family discovered, sites of great natural beauty that have enchanted visitors for generations.