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University of Basel

Petrified water.

Text: Angelika Jacobs

Thousands of years compacted into just a few centimeters of rock: stalagmites contain a valuable climate record that stretches back farther than tree rings or ice cores.

(Photo: University of Basel, Christian Flierl)
(Photo: University of Basel, Christian Flierl)

Professor Dominik Fleitmann and his team collect samples from dripstone caves in various regions of the world, including the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Switzerland. In the Milandre Cave in the Canton of Jura, the researchers have been measuring the drip rate and temperature for a number of years in order to incorporate this measurement data into their analyses.

Prof. Dr. Dominik Fleitmann. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Prof. Dr. Dominik Fleitmann. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

The actual focus of their research, however, is on the interior of the stalagmites. By examining the layered deposits, they can reconstruct how precipitation and temperature levels have varied over the millennia. Like tree rings, these layers of what Fleitmann calls “petrified water” reflect the climatic and weather conditions at the time. In the future, he also wants to scour the deposits for traces of genetic material, which allows conclusions to be drawn about the community of soil organisms in the ground above the cave. This, he says, will offer additional insights into the prevailing environmental conditions.

Fleitmann is also fascinated by the influence of climate variations on the twists and turns of the past from a social and political perspective. With this in mind, he combines his data with archaeological finds and historical records. What influence did climate variations have on the emergence of the Silk Road or Islam, for example? And was there a historical precedent for the biblical Flood?

Dominik Fleitmann has been Professor of Quaternary Geology since 2019 at the Department of Environmental Sciences, where he plans to establish a center for research into speleothems (the technical term for cave formations).

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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