My Mosaics in Science internship concludes this week, and as I say 再见(zàijiàn)—goodbye to Carlsbad Caverns, I wanted to reflect on my experiences here over the past three months.

This summer, I collected data on current environmental conditions in Carlsbad Cavern in order to establish a baseline for the park’s ongoing Visitor Use Management (VUM) study. VUM is a framework for park management to analyze visitor impacts on visitor experience and park resources. For the VUM study, I monitored sound and CO2 levels, and took part in impact mapping. Impact mapping is a process of visualizing impact with colored polygons to help identify areas and patterns of impact. Paper maps of the Big Room and other paved tour routes were printed, and areas of the map were colored according to the severity of impact—from red/severe (cave features completely flattened), to yellow/moderate (several broken speleothems), and green/light (a few broken speleothems or near pristine condition). This data will be added to a GIS layer and tracked over time to monitor the unwanted growth of severely impacted areas.

Sonia Meyer impact mapping in the Big Room. Photo by Todd Roberts

My major project this summer was carbon dioxide monitoring with the goal of establishing current conditions for the VUM project. The park began CO2 monitoring in 2018, and my main responsibilities were to place new sensors, write a standard operating procedure (SOP) for the device, collect and analyze data, and set the foundation for this monitoring project to continue beyond my short tenure at the park. In additional to establishing a baseline for future comparison of desired conditions, this monitoring will provide important health and safety information about air quality, particularly on high-visitation days when the elevator lines are long and visitor congregate in poorly ventilated areas elevating CO2 levels. There are many different methods to quantify impact, which will be completed in the future as part of the VUM project, but these are the ones I worked on during my three months here.

Sonia Meyer collecting CO2 data in King’s Palace. Photo by James Jeffers

Data analysis and data hygiene are two of my strengths and despite lacking resources for most of my internship due to a delayed background check, this internship allowed me to utilize those strengths. First, I discovered that the original CO2 monitoring device was out of calibration and several months of data from that device are likely unusable. Then I created a very thorough SOP for the new devices—Wöhler CDL 210—which will be used to continue the CO2 monitoring after my internship concludes. In an effort to reduce data gaps from removing sensors from the cave during data download, I got a 20-year old laptop up and running with the appropriate software to download data in-cave. A few days ago, when I got computer access and was finally able to analyze my data, I discovered a major problem with the device’s built-in automatic baseline calibration. I worked hard to mathematically correct the data, and then complete the data analysis. In an effort to reduce data loss and save person-hours spent changing the sound monitor batteries every two days, but still losing half a day of data, I found a way to plug in the sound monitor so that it could record until its memory was full. Now, the sound monitor only needs to be extracted once every 10 days for data download.

During my orientation, I had the opportunity to shadow rangers for a day to learn about the park and the visitor’s experience. This was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn about the National Park Service (NPS) through the eyes of interpretative rangers and learning about the different career paths in NPS. I learned lessons in patience and working within the boundaries of the resources currently available to me. Working on this project without internet or computer access for most of my internship was a challenge, but it made me resourceful. I had opportunities to work with scientific equipment such as data loggers, and to complete fieldwork, both of which are invaluable experiences for anyone applying for cave management positions and graduate school, which is a next step for me.

Sonia Meyer on park housing porch. Photo by Hongwei Jeffers

In less than a week, I’ll have packed up my life here in Carlsbad and be flying to DC for the weeklong internship career workshop. As I had expected it to be, this was an incredible experience—not only did I have a ton of fun this summer, I learned so much and challenged myself constantly. If it weren’t for my husband and two fur babies waiting for me in California, I would be quite sad to be leaving Carlsbad Caverns. Instead, it is a bittersweet farewell. I have absolutely loved the work I did here and even in the moment, I always felt how lucky am I to be doing this. I greatly enjoyed my coworkers, my little house on the hill with stunning views of the desert with its acquired beauty, and the quiet lifestyle that accompanied the isolation of living in the park. It wasn’t until halfway through my internship that I really felt comfortable here and now it is time to go! There is still a lot I want to do and explore in this beautiful region of the country, and I’m emotionally invested in the carbon dioxide monitoring study now—I can’t wait to see the results in a year’s time.

Above are some photos from my favorite experiences this summer.

下次见(xià cì jiàn)—See you next time!


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