WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK, S.D. (AP) — Hundreds of feet beneath the Black Hills, a team of scientists and researchers snake through dark, narrow and silent corridors of ancient rock to reach their goal: what is thought to be some of the purest water on Earth.
The crew of National Park Service scientists that’s anchored by microbiologist Hazel Barton travels sporadically to the lowest reaches of South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park to study a series of underground lakes, which were discovered in the 1960s and aren’t home to any animal life or even easily detectable microscopic organisms.
But Barton, from the University of Akron, has discovered there is bacteria — albeit scant — in the lakes. She’s beginning to analyze about six years of data and hopes to decipher how the bacteria survives, answer questions about how it interacted before multicellular organisms came along and perhaps find new sources of antibiotics.
“It has the potential to answer a lot of questions that we have in biology that you can’t answer anywhere else because you have levels of complexity,” she said.
To gather the necessary samples, caving experience is crucial: It takes more than two hours for even the most adept cavers to reach Calcite Lake, the nearest body of water. “It’s certainly not a route for the inexperienced,” according to park service scientist Marc Ohms, who often joins Barton and, by his count, has made over 50 trips.
It’s a quiet affair. Cavers typically hear only their voices, the scraping of feet and some grunting as they squeeze through crevasses — the narrowest is about 7 inches wide — with equipment that’s light enough to carry and durable enough to survive the journey.
Barton, a 44-year-old British transplant, began caving here when she was a graduate student in Colorado, making weekend trips