WKU prepares to host unprecedented UN conference in mid-2020

Did you know the world’s longest known cave system is located in south central Kentucky?

The Mammoth Cave System has long been attracting researchers from around the world who are eager to collect data in this information-rich environment.

And in mid-2020, the Mammoth Cave System, along with Western Kentucky University’s Crawford Hydrology Laboratory, will facilitate another cave-related milestone: the arrival of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Karst Spring Conference, to be held at WKU from May 18-22, 2020.

“What the UN is trying to do is enhance international communication and improve the living conditions of the world through communication and cooperation,” says Chris Groves, Ph.D., director, WKU Crawford Hydrology Laboratory. “There’s a number of different ways they do that, including through science programs.”

Improved communication and collaboration are two key outcomes of this historic UNESCO gathering. Groves says that, in addition to a number of UN groups, the conference will host most of the international organizations that work with cave, karst science and conservation protection.

A common interest among many of the scientists meeting at WKU this spring is water, and the methods used to study it in karst regions. Fifth-grader Lyla Ross of the University School of Nashville is learning how to study groundwater by assisting the Crawford Hydrology Lab with a groundwater tracing experiment in Mammoth Cave National Park, the core area of a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve.

“This is the first time this entire group is gathering anywhere,” Groves says.

The four-day event will include technical scientific sessions, interactive workshops, guided tours and field excursions to the Mammoth Cave Area Biosphere Reserve and Mammoth Cave National Park. Groves says the agenda also includes some celebratory activities.

“The International Association of Hydrogeologists Karst Commission is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and they’re hosting a big party at one of the caves,” Groves says.

Mammoth Cave — and, by extenstion, WKU — are no strangers to hosting notable guests, due to the cave’s extensive size and designation in the UN’s World Heritage Program, which also includes iconic sites such as the Grand Canyon, Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.

Yet the continued ability of WKU to attract this caliber of researchers and scientists is a boon not only to the university, but also to students that enjoy some truly extraordinary learning and networking opportunities.

“For people who travel around the world doing this work, Mammoth Cave is one of the places that’s on their bucket list,” Groves says. “As a result, noted researchers could be here at any time. And it’s not an exaggeration to say if my students and I opened an issue of ‘National Geographic’ and saw an article about a cave, I could reach out and have a trip arranged in a few days. It’s about the relationships and benefits that our students have, then they go off to build their careers and they’re connected to this valuable network of people.”

WKU has a long history of collaboration with Chinese scientists in water resources. Old friends Chris Groves and Professor Yuan Daoxian, here in the field in Yunnan in 2017, have worked closely together to help lead five international projects within UNESCO’s International Geoscience Program since they met at China’s Institute of Karst Geology in Guilin 25 years ago. Professor Yuan will receive a lifetime achievement award from the International Association of Hydrogeologists at WKU in May.

The UNESCO conference also offers another benefit: the chance to strengthen what might have previously been digital-only interactions with face-to-face communication.

“When we have this meeting, the single most important thing to me is that it’s drawing together people with common interests and goals who otherwise wouldn’t be at the same place at the same time,” Groves says. “You’re riding on a bus to a cave system, sitting next to someone you may have not met. You can share experiences, insight, walk around together, share a meal. One hour together, in person, is equivalent to a lifetime of emails. We’re simply getting people together in the context of the larger research work and initiatives.”

This meeting marks 40 years of the “modern” era of close cooperation in education and research between WKU and Mammoth Cave National Park. Today the collaboration is stronger than ever. In this photo, Mammoth Cave Superintendent Barclay Trimble and Crawford Lab Assistant Director Lee Anne Bledsoe are about to rappel down an 80-foot deep pit where they will collect water samples from and underground river in the deepest levels of Great Onyx Cave.

Groves himself is a prime example of the allure of WKU and its proximity to the Mammoth Cave System. He arrived at WKU in 1981 from Maryland simply to be “part of this scene,” he says.

The wealth of research opportunities also helps WKU retain students and faculty. Groves points to Autumn Singer as an example. Singer had a background in aquatic ecology and, at the time, wasn’t focusing on caves or karst. When she heard about WKU’S Crawford Hydrology Lab, she arrived at WKU to pursue her master’s degree and, after graduating, stayed on to work full-time in the lab.

“She could have opportunities anywhere, but is so excited about the work that’s going on in our lab and at the Mammoth Cave System that she wanted to stay in this line of work,” Groves says.

Singer, along with Crawford Hydrology Lab Research Hydrologist and Assistant Director Lee Anne Bledsoe, have proven instrumental not just in the daily operations of the lab, but also in the organizational logistics required to host an international conference.

WKU works with UNESCO to promote “a world community of scientifically literate and educated young people.” Here, Bowling Green High School (BGHS) Chemistry teacher Cristen Olson (center) rests after a cave trip with a group of WKU graduate students (right) and BG Junior High science students. In this project, students with the High School’s Science National Honor Society are collecting and analyzing underground river water to learn about cave formation and threats to cave environments, and will give presentations about the work at the May UNESCO meeting.

“In terms of the UNESCO conference, Lee Anne is responsible for all of the details,” Groves says. “She really is the coordinator of the conference. We’re all in it together, but would be lost without her!”

For more information on the UNESCO Karst Spring Conference, visit the event website.