Using cemetery headstones to determine climate, pollution change

Megan Kawamoto is spending her summer not on the beach or by the pool, but in a cemetery. The Penn State Brandywine sophomore engineering major has teamed up with Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Laura Guertin to study marble gravestones to uncover hundreds of years’ worth of pollution and climate information. Their results will help unearth just how much more pollution is in the air today.

The data are being collected from 57 tombstones at Cumberland Cemetery in Lima, Pa., for the EarthTrek Gravestone Project, which aims to map the location of graveyards around the globe and then use marble gravestones in those graveyards to measure the weathering rate of marble at that location. Once Guertin and Kawamoto complete their analysis, their data will be sent to the global database.

"The weathering rates of gravestones are an indication of changes in the acidity of rainfall between locations and over time,” Guertin said. “The acidity is affected by air pollution and other factors, and could be used as a measure of changes in climate and pollution levels.”

Every time it rains, the raindrops contain more than just water, she said. As well as the small particles of dust that the water drops form around, the water can contain chemicals found in the atmosphere. Often the rain will end up being slightly acidic, and the acid will weather the materials it contacts. The amount of weathering that occurs from place to place differs and may be changing over time.

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Last Updated June 30, 2011