Paleoclimatologist reads climate change from stalagmites in the Han Caves
The Earth is filled with information about the climate. Famen Ardennes is no exception. This is why scientists have set up here a Geopark: a park where both tourists and residents are educated about earth sciences, in order to help prevent climate change.
“Most of what we know about climate we owe to paleoclimatology,” says Sophie Verheiden, a researcher at the Brussels Institute of Natural Sciences. Paleoclimatology is the science that studies past climates and their fluctuations. In Belgium, Sophie Verheiden analyzes stalagmites in the caves of Geopark Famenne-Ardenne, “true information traps”.
Created in 2014, Geopark Famenne-Ardenne is the only one in Belgium. It occupies a chalk strip of 915 km², or eight municipalities (Böring, Derby, Houghton, March-en-Famén, Nassogne, Rochefort, Tellen and Willen) with over 67,000 inhabitants. In 2018, it was awarded the UNESCO label. Thus, the sites in the geographical area are recognized as being of international geological importance. Therefore, it must be managed according to the concept of protection, education and sustainable development.
Protecting and valuing the natural heritage
This project was started by Sophie Verheyden. For the paleoclimatologist, Geopark Famenne-Ardenne is a veritable playground for climate research. Geological heritage is also used to increase the knowledge of the population and visitors about Earth sciences. In this way social issues such as climate change, environment, natural and cultural heritage can be discussed.
In cooperation with the Ecole Marche-en-Famenne, an experimental project has been created around the Han-sur-Lesse Caves, to educate students about Earth sciences. These caves attract 300,000 visitors each year. Illustrations have been installed and visits to geological sites are supervised by two geologists. The scientist asserts: “We want to make people aware of their environment through knowledge.” “We didn’t learn enough about climate change at school and it affects us now,” she said wistfully.
Caves contain underground information fossilized in calcite: a mixture of calcium, carbon, and oxygen. This allowed Sophie Verheiden to gather information about the ecology of the region, and even the continent. “We can go back 600,000 years and date major climate changes.”
The color, density, and sediments that make up stalagmites tell us a lot about the weather events that occurred. The current climate change with the meteoric rise of carbon dioxide2Level, not the first to try the land, for example. But it’s nuances: “The last time was in the Cretaceous period and we’re not dinosaurs…. If things continue like this, it’s not clear in what conditions people will live, Sophie Verheiden is worried. Moreover, today the environment is much poorer. We make our environment Unlivable.We must strive for sustainability.According to the scientist, protecting the soil and subsoil is essential to restore our environment.
This future climate change is alarming. This is why the paleoclimatologist insists on the importance of behavioral change in humans. And that is exactly what you want to encourage with Geopark. We need to be aware of our impact and change our habits, even if it takes effort. We are already witnessing a current of protests by the younger generation and this is encouraging for the future.
“Geology is reassuring. It helps to step back and think about how to do things in a coherent and relevant way. According to her, everyone can contribute to this change of mindset.” We can still maintain a sustainable situation in human terms. Each gesture has the significance of changing the way you think.
Green and educational tourism
Scientific research is carried out in close cooperation with the tourism sector. Alain Petit, Director of Geopark Famenne-Ardenne, has been in the tourism business for 25 years. He explains that the park project is also compatible with sustainable development, because it distinguishes itself in tourism thanks to its scientific added value.
For example, geological walking tours are organized, with geological and archaeological explanations about the environment and its biodiversity. It also uses charters and codes of conduct. “We have to encourage good environmental behaviour,” says Alan Pettit. “We try to encourage visitors to sustainable tourism, while respecting the environment.”
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