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Geology professor to present findings on how climate change has affected springs and streams

February 28, 2012

At the end of the week, Associate Professor of Geology Sue Swanson will present her findings on how climate change over the last 10,000 years affected springs and streams in southwestern Wisconsin at the annual meeting of the Wisconsin Section of the American Water Resources Association.

The goal of the research (which she is conducting with Maureen Muldoon, an associate professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh) is to determine if spring flow has been continuous throughout the last 10,000 years, even under climate conditions that differ from the present. Results of the research will lead to a better understanding of the effects that future climate change may have on groundwater levels and spring flow, which sustain Wisconsin’s world-class trout streams.

This project stemmed from a Keck Geology Consortium project Swanson co-directed with Muldoon in the summer of 2009 called “The Geology and Ecohydrology of Springs in the Driftless Area of Southwest Wisconsin,” which took six students from schools across the country to the southwestern part of the state. There, they investigated geological controls on the distribution of springs in the region and the contributions of springs to stream ecology.

While students wrapped up their projects in 2010, Swanson and Muldoon went on to do additional work on the project, which is now funded by the University of Wisconsin System through its UW-Madison Water Resources Institute.

What they have found so far is that there is good evidence the springs have been flowing continuously for the last 5,000 thousand years or so, including during periods that were warmer and dryer than today. The evidence comes from geochemical records of materials that are deposited near the springs.

Three Beloit students, most recently Evan Mascitti’12, have had the opportunity to work with Swanson on this project. Mascitti has assisted Swanson with sampling spring water each month and surveying geologic formations in the region to better understand the occurrence of springs across the landscape.

“This has been a fantastic project because it allows me to do field work in beautiful settings and to work with Beloit students,” Swanson says. “I also like working on projects that have the potential to affect how we manage our natural resources.”

This summer, Swanson will begin her next project titled The Role of Groundwater in the Flooding History of Clear Lake, Wisconsin,” which is co-directed with Beloit alumnus Justin Dodd’03, an assistant professor of geology at Northern Illinois University. This project will also be done in association with the Keck Geology Consortium, a consortium of liberal arts colleges that Beloit College helped found in 1987.

Source: Susan (Sue) K. Swanson is an associate professor of geology, chair of the environmental studies program, and the Weeks Chair in Physical and Human Geography. She usually teaches courses in environmental geology, hydrogeology, geomorphology, and geographic information systems. Her research interests include wetlands hydrogeology, spring flow, heterogeneities in sedimentary bedrock aquifers, and the effects of urbanization on surface water and groundwater resources. In fall 2007, she directed the ACM Ecology and Human Origins program in Tanzania.