SRGM Club hosts an expert on the formation of the Bahamas

Wednesday, July 14, 2021
“The Wall” is a place off the coast of San Salvador where the floor suddenly drops from 60 feet to 18,000 feet in depth. A UALR professor recently visited the SRGM Club and discussed her knowledge of this subject.

The Spring River Gem and Mineral Club met on July 1 for the first time after a long hiatus due to the COVID pandemic. The meeting was held at the Omaha Center where quite a few members, along with some new members, gathered at 10 a.m. Treasurer Carla Quataert opened the meeting by allowing new people and members to introduce themselves.

A new vice president, Wayne Pinner, spoke briefly. The executive board meeting had been held, and a motion had been passed that out-of-town speakers could be reimbursed for motel expenses if they had to stay overnight in the area. Pinner also named the current officers in the club. The publicity position was still open. One member volunteered to help, if there was another member to split part of the telephone/computer tasks needed for the position. The membership fee for 2021 is $5, which covers a member’s entire family. A silent auction was being held at the current meeting for people to bid on rocks and minerals that had been found locally, and bids would be final before the current speaker began.

Dr. Rene Shroat-Lewis, paleontologist and Associate Professor of Earth Sciences, UALR, was the guest speaker. The title of her presentation was “Learning by the Soles of Our Shoes: A Total Immersion Course that Explores the Geology and Ecology of the Bahamas.” She is the primary instructor of a similar course offered to UALR students. Besides classroom lessons held on the Little Rock campus, every other year up to 16 selected students and at least two professors, including Shroat-Lewis, go to the Bahamas for nine days to study the ecological niche on an intensive field trip of lessons and exploration. According to Shroat-Lewis, the class is designed to train students to become geologists, whether for research or industrial purposes. The Bahama trip, typically held in the month of March, was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID travel restrictions. So their long-awaited trip in 2022 will come after a four-year hiatus.

The Bahamian Islands form an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, and are believed to be about 200,000 years old, about the time the Atlantic was forming as continents were rifting apart. Unlike the Carribean Islands which were formed from volcanoes, the Bahamian Islands formed from the calcium carbonate that comes from shells being broken up in the shallow warm waters around the continents that were splitting up. This saturation of carbonate is what ultimately formed the Bahamian Islands.

The eastern island of San Salvador has been the chosen spot for their trips. It offers a unique carbonate-rich ecological environment that is unlike any place in the U.S. and very rare world-wide. Rock formations on San Salvador are made out of ooids, tiny balls of calcium carbonate that form layers upon layers around a central carbonate nucleus. It is the surf tidal movements that roll over these formations, shaping them into balls. These ooid formations then break down in rain and become cemented together, forming all kinds of rock that make up the islands.

San Salvador is a well-established research island with several research centers and has many reefs and ecological niches for exploration and discovery. There are many salt-water lakes inland, as well as an extensive coastline, offering a variety of terrestrial and aquatic locations to explore. The entire time the students are on the island, they are not on vacation, but rather are going through a rigorous course of learning, whether in the classroom or out in the field documenting and keeping an extensive field notebook of their discoveries. They also are doing massive amounts of reading of research journal articles, as well as presentations throughout the nine-day course.

Before the students arrive on San Salvador, they are already well-read and knowledgeable of the ecological niche and history of the Bahamas based on their classroom studies at the Little Rock campus. They also have gone through swim tests and snorkel practice at the UALR swimming pool.

Shroat-Lewis described a typical day for a student during the trip. “The daily schedule is long, very long,” Lewis said. Breakfast is from 7 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. By 8 a.m. students are on the truck heading out into the field. Field exploration on land is done in the mornings while the temperature is still cool, then lunch out in the field, followed by aquatic snorkeling exploration in the afternoon. Field exploration includes searching and documenting both plant and animal life of a particular ecological niche, as well as the geological formations making up that niche. Field documentation includes making specific notes, drawings and photographs of different specimens and species. Students often give presentations while in the field. They all return to the research center by 5 p.m., dinner is at 5:30 p.m., then classroom is from 7 until 9 or 9:30 p.m. “We wear these kids out,” Lewis explained. Students often will give their own presentations during the evening classes. Dr. Shroat-Lewis shared many pictures from these trips, as well as materials from the class, including a sample syllabus and field notebooks of some of the students. She also passed around different specimens of ooid formations and stratified rock she had collected on San Salvador.

Similar trips offered through courses from the UALR Earth Sciences Department may take students to other places, such as the Grand Canyon or Hawaii, in odd-numbered years. The Bahama course is offered in even-numbered years. They must apply to take the course, a process that starts in the Fall prior to the Spring when the course is offered in even-numbered years. The out-of-pocket cost for a student to take the course is $1,200 on top of the usual UALR tuition. This includes air fare, overnight accommodations during the trip and all food and travel while on the island.

The SRGMC meetings have resumed in 2021 and they meet the first Thursday of every month at 10 a.m. at the Omaha Center.

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