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Communication Associate: Public Relations | Lori Melton | | (218) 726-8830

June 27, 2011
Cheryl Reitan | Interim director | UMD Public Relations and Marketing | 218 726-8996 |
Robert Hecky | Professor | UMD Large Lakes Observatory | 218 726-7379 |
Susan Gawlowicz | Senior Communication Specialist | Rochester Institute of Technology | 585 475-5061 |

Benchmarking a Slice of Africa; Preserving Biodiversity Through Science
UMD's Robert Hecky joins MacArthur Foundation-funded study in Rwanda

Robert HeckyRobert Hecky
University of Minnesota Duluth aquatic biologist and professor, Robert Hecky, will head research teams on shore and on Lake Kivu to benchmark hazards to the region's biodiversity. Hecky's work complements analysis of satellite imagery gathered by Anthony Vodacek, a Rochester Institute of Technology scientist specializing in remote sensing. The two-year survey of the Lake Kivu system will collect scientific measurements from several disciplines for benchmarking hazards threatening the region's biodiversity. A $350,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation is supporting the effort. The scientists will share findings from their study at a conference in 2013 in Kigali, Rwanda.

Hecky, along with seismologist and volcanologist Cindy Ebinger, from the University of Rochester, will seek to understand how methane is formed in the lake, how much is produced and at what rate, and—most important—determine whether or how often the lake has suffered catastrophic explosions in the past. Recent efforts by the Rwandan and Congolese governments to develop the underwater resource as a fuel source could temper the potential dangers associated with a gas-charged lake.

"Successful gas extraction will decrease the hazard as long as it doesn't upset the stability of the lake," Vodacek says. "The Rwandan government has already required hazard assessments, and they are full partners in our systems-based approach to hazard assessment and mitigation. They are showing due diligence in trying to understand what their extraction system does to the lake stability."

Hecky, Stephanie Guildford and Sergei Katsev, all from the University of Minnesota Duluth, will make critical biological and chemical measurements of the water to help understand the production of methane in the lake. Hecky will sample lake sediments throughout the lake basin, extending analyses he first made on sediment cores extracted in 1971 and 1972. His early findings showed the occurrence of catastrophic lake overturns approximately every 1,000 years, perhaps resulting from earthquakes, landslides or volcanic eruptions agitating and releasing the methane from the bottom layers of the lake. Chris Scholz, at Syracuse University, will profile the sediments and crust beneath Lake Kivu to map lake bottom volcanic vents and faults, and to provide a context for the University of Minnesota Duluth team's cores and water samples. Together they will assess the long-term changes in the physical structure of the sediment and bedrock under the lake. Hecky's group and Scholz will take measurements on the lake in December and January 2011 using specialized equipment on Scholz's vessel, which has been used to explore other African lakes.

"The overarching goal of our project is to understand the interplay and feedbacks between volcanism, faulting and biological processes and human activities on the Lake Kivu system over the past 5,000 to 10,000 years of volcanism, faulting and climate change," says Vodacek, a professor in RIT's Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. "We also will establish a baseline for assessing future human-induced and tectonic-induced change in the Lake Kivu rift system."

The comprehensive approach to evaluating different aspects of the ecosystem hinges on the varied expertise of Vodacek's team.

Understanding the natural hazards is important to protecting the biodiversity in a place where endangered gorillas inhabit the highland forests on the flanks of active volcanoes, and ancestral species to a popular aquarium fish (haplochromine cichlids) swim far below in the crystal-clear waters of Lake Kivu.

The multidisciplinary study involves a major survey of Lake Kivu, seismic and geodetic monitoring, and analyses of satellite imagery. Two other areas join Hecky's emphasis:

Monitoring Earthquakes and Volcanoes—Ebinger will install Global Positioning System sensors and seismometers to map shallow magma reservoirs and active faults, identify regions of volcanic degassing and create an earthquake database to evaluate earthquake and volcanic hazards in Rwanda and in the rift valley.

Remote Sensing Analysis of Deforestation—Analyzing satellite images of the entire region from 1972 to the present will reveal the extent of deforestation, habitat loss and the impact on regional stream and lake-water quality.

The team's effort to document the scientific baseline of the Lake Kivu region grew from a workshop Vodacek, Ebinger and Hecky held in Rwanda in January 2010 to address growing concerns about the natural dangers of Lake Kivu.

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