Over fifty percent of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and much of the surrounding states,
contain karst landscapes - areas characterized by features such as sinkholes, large springs,
and caves. Understanding water flow through the unsaturated zone, the area between the
surface and underlying aquifer, in karst terrain is critical to understanding water supply,
potential groundwater contamination, and cave-adapted ecosystems. Waterflow through
karst groundwater systems is marked by both quick flow and long-term storage. As water
can both move quickly into and out of the ground or be stored for longer periods of time,
when contamination enters these aquifers, it can be an incredibly difficult problem to
mitigate. Previous research has provided limited ability to preemptively address these
concerns of flow path dynamics and often source water protection in karst is done
reactively, typically after contamination has occurred. Through combining traditional
monitoring techniques and including ecosystem data on cave-adapted biota, we aim to
provide greater insight into water flow in the unsaturated zone. This set of data may provide
clear indicators of contaminant potential prior to significant impacts. To this end, the goal
of this project is to answer the questions:
? How does unsaturated zone behavior vary between sites?
? How do the behaviors of species change with variations in season or between caves?
? Are changes in cave ecosystem species composition related to variability in cave environmental conditions?
While water quantity and quality monitoring has long been used to characterize flow
patterns, cave-adapted ecosystems may provide new insight into the groundwater system
and potential impacts on it. Invertebrate species can be highly sensitive to environmental
change and are often used as indicators of environmental impacts. Through monitoring
groundwater quality and quantity in caves, mapping all karst features, and conducting
repeated biological inventories in-cave, we will be able to quantify unsaturated zone flow
behavior throughout the study area which will allow for a better understanding of cave
ecological response to the variability in groundwater conditions. These data may be able
to provide a quicker indicator of environmental impact to allow for mitigation before major
contamination occurs. This information will provide land managers with greater insight
into these flow paths and potential impacts on cave-adapted ecosystems. This research will
focus on mentoring three students in both the scientific techniques and communication
necessary to broaden the applicability of the research.