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Fieldwork: Puzzling Out The Path of Salt Contamination


His summer research project was meaningful in and of itself — investigating high salt levels in wells in a village not far from campus. But Chris Klein ’18 also gained experience in handling the unexpected, as in, “What else can we try to figure this out?”

Klein, a geosciences major, spent about a month working with Ryan Sedwick ’19 to track the movement of salt from a storage site to two wells roughly a mile away. Their advisor was Todd Rayne, Joel W. Johnson Family Professor of Environmental Studies. In previous research Rayne’s students had identified the storage area as the probable source of the relatively high salt levels in the wells.

about Chris Klein '18

Major: Geosciences

Minor: Literature

Hometown: Stony Point, N.Y.

High School: North Rockland

Read more student research stories

But for that to be the case, the salty groundwater would have had to flow under a creek that, in theory, should have stopped it from reaching the wells. To determine what was going on, Klein and Sedwick first measured the electrical properties of groundwater below the surface, using a geophysics method called electrical resistivity imaging (ERI). Salty groundwater conducts electricity better than unaffected groundwater and can be identified using ERI.

 “To reach our final conclusion, we looked at water heights, or heads, of the ground water and Big Creek at various points, and compared the trends and head differences to increases and decreases of chloride concentrations of water samples at the same locations,” Klein explains.

They determined that groundwater was moving up and into the stream in one section, as they expected. But in another part of the stream, closer to the wells, stream water flowed into the groundwater, which allowed contaminants to move under the stream to the wells.

 “It took a little bit of outside thinking to say, OK, even though one area kind of makes sense and theoretically is what should be happening, in another setting, which is a quarter of a mile away, something completely different is going on,” Klein says.

He thought he’d major in government until he took his first geosciences course. “You realize as you take more and more classes, it’s not so much about just studying rocks. It’s the ability to take a data set, analyze or question the authenticity of where the results are coming from and use all the information, plus your own findings, in order to draw a larger conclusion, which are skills that are useful in any field out there,” Klein says.

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