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Scientists visiting sanctuary to study sinkholes

June 18, 2008
Patty Ramus
Scientists of varying disciplines are staying in Alpena to take part in ongoing research project to gain a better understanding of three underwater sinkholes in Lake Huron.

A group consisting of nutrient chemistry, geochemistry, groundwater, geology and oceanography experts arrived in Alpena Tuesday to begin gathering data as part of a research project funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration.

According to Steve Ruberg, a project leader from NOAA’s Great Lakes Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, the team is looking at locally known sinkholes in El Cajon Bay and near Middle Island and a sinkhole discovered in 2001 during a NOAA sponsored shipwreck survey. The recently discovered sinkhole is located approximately 10 miles east of Middle Island.

Underwater sinkholes are unique areas where organisms can found surviving in extreme conditions.

“We are providing a better understanding for the community about how the groundwater forces the nutrients in (the sinkholes) and how these ecosystems are created,” he said.

Ruberg said during the project, the team will look to determine the flow of the groundwater out of the system and its age. Groundwater flowing into the bottom of the sinkhole often remains at the bottom because it is more dense than the water on the surface. The groundwater has an impact on lake levels but there hasn’t been as much research done in this area.

“Groundwater inputs aren’t as well understood,” he said.

The sinkholes are home to microbes which are comparable to those found in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, Ruberg said.

According to Scott Kendall, a research assistant from Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, these microbes grow at the bottom of the holes and resemble mats. The microbes fall into a group of organisms known as extremophiles. Extremophiles are organisms which live in environments too extreme for most creatures.

“These are only found in the sinkholes where the water is pouring out,” Kendall said of the sinkhole microbes. “So the question is what type of organism is it and what type of life is down there.”

Ruberg said the team will try to determine identify what type of microbes grow in the sinkholes and how they relate to the lake’s ecosystem. Microbial samples also will be taken for pharmaceutical testing at the University of Michigan life sciences.

The team is spending the week gathering samples and installing equipment to take different types of measurements over a long-term period. Data and measurements will be taken over the next year. Other trips to Alpena are planned for July and September, Ruberg said.

The project is not the first first research to be done of sinkholes in the area. Kendall said an area resident conducted his own research in the 1980s and since 2006 biology-based research has been done through National Science Foundation funding.

Patty Ramus can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 358-5687.



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