The Call of the Pacific

What brought us here? Nothing but the truth! Or at least an attempt to find it. This question – why did we come here – has multiple answers, such as: to find the broken part of a stalagmite that was lost for unknown reasons, to explore new study sites, to collect interesting samples, to deploy a monitoring device –  even the advice of a wise elephant and his buddy the lucky cat could count as a valid reason to come here.

50 years ago Dr. Chris Hendy one of the pioneers of the speleothem science, collected a stalagmite from a legendary cave. This stalagmite was kept in the archives of his collection until the visionaries Dr. Sebastian Breitenbach and Dr. Adam Hartland decided that this would be the object of study for my doctoral project. That’s how stalagmite C132 reappeared from a laboratory drawer, and with it came incredible adventures.


Last summer, members of the team QUEST undertook an expedition to a tiny island situated right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The team is formed by Dr. Sebastian Breitenbach, Dr. Adam Hartland, Dr. Ola Kwiecien and Dr. Maximilan Hansen and myself, along with the very skilled and experienced field technical officer Warrick Powrie, and an the enthusiastic PhD student Sebastian Hoepker both from the University of Waikato. The name of this tropical paradise is Niue.

Everyone is ready to explore Niue caves
From right to left: Max, Dayren, Seb B. and Adam working  intensively on drilling a stalagmite core
Ola closely examining snails on the cave sediment.  Photo by Adam Hartland 

But don’t assume that just because Niue is small and in the middle of nowhere that means it’s not interesting. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Niue island is situated right where the one of the switches that activate the dynamics of the climate on Earth turns on and off. Yeah, where the magic happens! Niue is witness to the warming of the ocean surface waters. This heat, which comes from the sun, is stored and transported towards the west by the ocean currents, which in turn are driven by the trade winds. Part of this warm water is evaporated and forms thousands of towering clouds that discharge this water as rain in the south-west of Asia and Australia. Another part is distributed to higher latitudes.


And if this were not enough, the Niue bedrock is full of caves. Incredible caves of many kinds: some very deep, some very hot and humid, others not so much, some that intrigue, even some that open their doors and joyfully receive the Pacific Ocean with, listen attentively to its secrets and jealously guard them in their stalagmites.

“The cave that invites”
“The intriguing Cave” coated by a black sediment
Niue cave residents having deep conversations with the visitors

But what does the Pacific Ocean have to say? The Pacific Ocean? Yes yes the big guy, yeees the biggest ocean on earth. That one! The Pacific Ocean was named by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, and as its name implies it means “the peaceful sea”. But to tell the truth, there’s very little that’s peaceful about it. It’s calm in some places and at some times, but it is also true that it is highly dynamic, powerful, sometimes violent and destructive.

I like to say that the Pacific Ocean is everything! Because it contains everything – waters of thousands of colours, a wide range of temperatures, soft sounds that relax and resounding sounds that shake – because it produces much of the oxygen that a great number of beings on Earth breathe, sustains marine life, disappears when its waters evaporate and some time later comes back to itself, and because every time I see it inundates my life with infinite inspiration and completeness.

The Pacific Ocean helps me to understand that everything is connected and it fascinates me to think that every time I inhale air I am breathing the one who is everything.

“The cave with the turquoise pool”  Photo by Adam Hartland

After two years of intense lab work the geochemical analysis of the stalagmite C132 is starting to reveal interesting climate dynamics. But that’s another story, one that’s cooking in the laboratories of Earth Sciences of RUB University in Germany, The University of Waikato in New Zealand and the Geological Institute, ETH in Switzerland.

Rain water sample

In the end the expedition was successful and we returned to the university with many samples. We did not find the missing part of the stalagmite – and that’s fine, too. No one said it would be easy to find a puzzle piece that contains the history of the last 5000 years of climate in the Tropical Pacific. Without doubt it was the best expedition of the year. What incredible luck to have answered the call of the Pacific and experienced for a week the same conditions in which the stalagmite C132 grew happily in a remote past.

Are you ready to jump in?



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