September 7, 2001

Scientists Wrap Up Research, Preparing for Life After Ward

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It was midday Wednesday in the Dendrochronology Lab and Peter I. Kuniholm was analyzing the remains of ancient wood pieces collected from tombs, gates and buildings unearthed at several sites throughout the eastern Mediterranean.

A frequent user of the Ward Center for Nuclear Studies, Kuniholm said he was trying not to think about the inevitable closing of the reactor.

“We’re just trying to get samples analyzed as quickly as possible, knowing we don’t have a lot of time,” Kuniholm said, as he tried to balance raw wood pieces between his hands.

He was a little frenzied and could hardly contain his excitement about the ton of wood that was arriving later in the day. He collected the wood during his summer trip to Turkey.

The archeology professor has studied dendrochronology for the past 25 years at Cornell.

In the Aegean Dendrochronology Project, Kuniholm and researchers measure the age of ancient wood pieces by counting tree rings.

By analyzing variations in the width of annual tree rings (which are altered by changes in climate and moisture), the Kuniholm research team has constructed a tree-ring sequence spanning more than 1,500 years.

The task is complicated by equatorial tree samples that do not contain rings.

To counteract this problem, Kuniholm uses the Ward reactor to irradiate wood chunks and determine the trace elements in the atmosphere each year.

The elemental composition of the atmosphere signifies the climate conditions. Thus it may be possible to date and discover volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters.

Previous research has shown that the major second millennium B.C. eruption of Thera, a volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, had global effects that likely influenced climate patterns as far away as the western United States.

During the interview, Kuniholm held in his hand the cross-section of Juniper beam from the Midas Mound Tumulus in Gordion, Turkey. It was 765 years old when it was cut in 718 B.C.

Prof. Suzanne M. Kay, earth and atmospheric sciences, is another frequent user of the Ward Center. Kay studies the formation, evolution and destruction of the continental crust along the Andes Mountains.

By using the reactor to irradiate rock samples, Kay can study the elemental compositions of continental chunks throughout the earth’s history.

Recent break-throughs in her work may have commercial applications, as she has discovered the percentage of gold, copper and silver deposits seem to be related to shallow continental slopes.

To use the reactor, Kay’s samples are first ground into a rock powder and placed in a silicon tube. They are then inserted into the core of the reactor, radiated, removed and finally the concentrations of the elements in the sample are counted.

“Somehow I didn’t believe it was all going to happen,” said Kay of the reactor’s closing.

The Board of Trustees voted last May to close the reactor, a move that went against the recommendation of the full Faculty Senate.

Although 70 percent of Kay’s data is generated from the Ward Center, she admitted that closing the reactor is not a disaster, because her information can be collected from another less efficient method, which does not involve the reactor.

Plus, the University has promised to accommodate Kay and Kuniholm and others who use the facility by shipping samples to other nearby reactors. But the expenses incurred from shipping samples out of state will undoubtedly slow the pace of research.

“It’s obviously going to be inconvenient,” Kay said. “We’ll never be able to do the volume of sample we’ve done in the past.”

For Kay, accommodation will require sending radioactive samples by mail and returning them within a one week window.

Kuniholm calculated that it would cost a minimum of $50 for each test. He said there is no way they will be able to duplicate their library of 10,000 tree rings with such a technique, which would outweigh the University’s annual operating cost of the Ward Center in the first place.

“They said I will be taken care of. I have no idea what this means,” Kuniholm said, adding that the administration has not discussed funding priorities.

Both Kay and Kuniholm take summer research trips with undergraduates, who are trained to use the Ward Center.

The strength of the Ward facility is its suitability for undergraduate research, according to Prof. John J. Chiment, paleontology.

Chiment, who collaborates with Kuniholm to date ancient organic remains, is known for his ground-breaking discovery of the mastodon skeleton in Chemung County, N.Y.

Cornell’s rare facility could put students above their peers in the job market, he said.

“The Ward reactor is exactly the kind of cool toy that is ideal for a first rate undergraduate education,” Chiment said.

Archived article by Jennifer Roberts