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GIS and Bermuda Cave Conservation

Darcy Gibbons
Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas USA

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Figure 1: Church Cave -- endangered by construction of luxury town homes

Over the past century, the health and environmental well being of Bermuda's unique caves has been threatened by vandalism of speleothems, dumping of trash, cesspit seepage, quarrying for limestone, and most recently, deep well sewage injection. These actions have involved individuals, private companies, and governmental organizations. The 150 known caves found on the island are precious, non-renewable resources that have taken thousands to millions of years to form.

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Figure 2: Large columns in Admiral's Cave -- one of the most historic and endangered caves in Bermuda

However, most damage to the caves and their endemic fauna is permanent and will never be repaired. In order to raise public awareness of the island's caves and cave animals and to document threats to this fragile habitat, the Bermuda Cave and Karst Information System (BeCKIS) was erected as a component of the Bermuda Zoological Society's Bermuda Biodiversity Project. BeCKIS will compile data on the biological, geological, and hydrological characteristics of the caves. This information will be entered, along with other biological, geological, topographical, land use, and environmental data into a comprehensive GIS database composed of interrelated layers that can be queried.

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Figure 3: Pristine, crystal-clear water typical of Bermudian caves

The first portion of this study will begin in Summer 2002 and involves replication of a survey of all Bermuda's caves performed by Dr. Tom Iliffe in 1983. In an effort aimed at accessing the degree of environmental change occurring over the last two decades, each cave on the island will be qualitatively evaluated for both positive (e.g., speleothems, biology, and historical significance) and negative aspects (e.g., pollution, dumping, vandalism and quarrying threats). GPS coordinate readings of each cave entrance will accurately determine their location and distribution. Digital pictures taken in each cave will be linked to the GIS to enhance the numerical data. These photographs also will be used in presentations to justify why the caves are important and ought to be conserved and protected.

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Figure 4: Cave diving will be used to collect data on the underwater caves

Once the fieldwork has been completed, both 1983 and 2002 data sets will be added to the Biodiversity Project's existing GIS database. By comparing the current data to the previous survey, it should be possible to determine the type and magnitude of environmental changes and prepare lists of the most significant, most endangered and most damaged caves on the island. Since many of Bermuda's more than 80 endemic marine cave species are known only from a single cave and no where else on Earth, it is critical to evaluate threats to the caves so that remedial actions can be taken before pollution or destruction of the cave habitat results in the extinction of these species.

During the second phase of this project, 4-5 of the most fragile and/or potentially endangered caves will be selected for more detailed and quantitative study. Water quality profiles, using electronic data loggers, as well as standard chemical analysis, will document and contrast hydrological characteristics of pollution and relatively pristine caves. Detailed maps of both the dry and underwater portions of these caves will be prepared. Distribution lists of fauna will be correlated with hydrological data to characterize the ecological boundaries of individual species. Still and video photographs obtained during this project will be used to create displays for the Bermuda Aquarium to educate residents and tourists alike about Bermuda's cave resources and encourage their protection.

Bermuda Summer 2002 cave photo index