Graveyards revealing secrets about climate change and pollution

23 July 2009

A walk through a cemetery is an evocative journey telling tales of human life come and gone, but to weathering erosion specialist Associate Professor Deirdre Dragovich, graveyards can also tell a story about climate change and pollution.

A/Professor Dragovich from the University of Sydney's School of Geosciences is now recruiting members of the general public to collect data from graveyards for the Global Gravestone Project, which began last month. The project aims to map the location of graveyards around the world and then measure the weathering rate of the marble gravestones within them.

"Weathered marble surfaces represent the cumulative environmental history of their location," said geomorphologist A/Professor Dragovich. "Because marble headstones are freshly cut when they are placed in a cemetery, the weathering `clock' is effectively set to zero."

The Global Gravestone Project is part of the EarthTrek Global Citizen Science program, whose tag line is "The community is part of the solution" and which is being run in conjunction with the Geological Society of America. It is open to anyone over 13 years of age who has an interest in science, and who also has a Global Positioning Unit (GPS).

The methods used to measure the weathering of the marble headstones include observing and measuring the lead lettering (which weathers only slowly), and measurement of the varying thickness at the top, middle and the bottom of the headstone.

The data collected by the participants will be analysed to show the changes in weathering rates influenced by acidity in the environment in specific locations over time. The acidity is affected mainly by air pollution which increases weathering rates. It may also be possible to detect changes in rainfall over time, thus providing a measure of climate change and other factors, and could be used as a measure of changes in climate and pollution levels.

Participants have already registered about 70 American cemeteries in the US, said A/Professor Dragovich.

Once data is collected by the community, it can be uploaded to the Global Gravestone Project website.

"This is the first time we will be able to get a global view of rainfall patterns and pollution in relation to weathering," said A/Professor Dragovich.

"We have been observing gravestones for a while, but previously everyone just used to work in their local area. By using the internet to recruit participants from the general public, we will be able to collect data from all over the world - the US, the UK, Europe - wherever people can see the Gravestone Project website."

To read full instructions on how to collect data from marble gravestones go to the Global Gravestones Project website.

Contact: Jackie Chowns

Phone: 02 9036 5404

Email: 0046212a073f1b5c113a3c150562363d1f490c30