Exporting Expertise: Geology Prof Leads Research Partnership in Colombia

A pair of Bemidji State University students spent a month in Colombia this past summer, using their skills to help understand and protect vital ecosystems in the watershed surrounding the country’s Chinchiná River. Manizales, Colombia, where the project took place,is home to BSU Associate Professor of Geology Dr. Miriam Rios-Sanchez, BSU’s lead for the trip.BSU has partnered with the Universidad de Católica Manizales (Catholic University of Manizales), where Rios-Sanchez has faculty connections through her own research and knowledge of the region.

Before coming to the United States, Rios-Sanchez graduated from the University of Caldas, located in Manizales and taught there for several years.”Because of my interest in doing research on groundwater in mountainous areas, I started giving workshops at the University of Caldas and met my colleagues there,”she said. “Given their interest in the environmental aspects of ground waterstudies, we developed this partnership.”The Chinchiná River basin is an area of 1,052square kilometers — just under 260,000 acres— in the Colombian department of Caldas,in the central Andes Mountains. Manizalesand its population of around 435,000, plus surrounding municipalities, rely on the basin’s watershed — an area of land that channels rainfall or melting snow to the river — for water. The upper part of the basin includes unique ecosystems called páramos, plant-rich and ecologically rich mountain biomes at altitudes below snow caps but above forest canopies, that are critical for water storage and regulation.In recent years, land in the Chinchiná River basin and in the páramos has been increasingly used for agriculture and cattle grazing and for hydroelectric power,and and this use has threatened the river. The nearby Nevado del Ruiz volcano, which has been erupting since 2014, also adds an additional complexity to the local ecosystem.

International Collaboration

While developing the project to study the Chinchiná River watershed, Colombian students and faculty recognized their need to learn new skills and techniques for studying and monitoring groundwater — a specialty for Rios-Sanchez and Bemidji State’s geology program.

The opportunity to forge a formal relationship between the Colombian university and Bemidji State inspired Rios-Sanchez to apply for the Innovation Fund grant.

In February, the organization 100,000 Strong in the Americas announced that Bemidji State would join one of 24 teams of higher education institutions for projects in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The fund is a public-private collaboration between the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, embassies in the region, various corporations and foundations and Partners for the Americas, a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The Innovation Fund, operated by 100,000 Strong, supports projects that emphasize student exchanges and strengthen regional educational cooperation. In its announcement of the 2023–2024 grants, the organization said this year’s effort will allow more than 100 students from 31 South American and 23 U.S. colleges and universities to participate in “innovative, inclusive training and exchange programs for students and faculty.”

This year’s projects focus on climate solutions, sustainable energy, digital transformations, health, creative industries and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) professions.

In total, the organization has funded more than 280 projects involving teams representing 550 institutions from 25 countries and 49 U.S. states. The exchange was meant to broaden geoscience education for both universities, helping students develop skills to assess and evaluate groundwater resources in complex landscapes. In their fieldwork, the students used their experimental skills and common geoscience techniques that will allow the teams to characterize both the Chinchiná watershed and natural springs found near Bemidji. The scientific work was wrapped in an immersive, intercultural experience that allowed students from both countries to pursue their work in a new language.

Student Experiences

Joining Rios-Sanchez on the trip were Rachel Heintz, an environmental studies major from Savage and Trevor Wozniak, also an environmental studies major who hails from Rochester.

“We spent a lot of time examining Colombia’s environmental issues and exploring ways they could be solved,” Heintz said. “We learned that we can combat these issues with better farming practices, by limiting our consumption of resources, doing a better job of managing the natural world by giving back and studying — and educating others — about climate change and environmental degradation.”
She cites the exchange program as a crucial turning point in her academic career.

“I am now thinking this is the path I want to follow in my studies.”

While taking full advantage of their opportunity to explore the rich environments surrounding Manizales, Heintz and Wozniak also experienced local food and culture and even took dance lessons with Universidad de Católica Manizales students.

Heintz recounted part of the trip which included a stay in a local Airbnb and a driving tour of the region’s ecology.

“The whole valley opened up in front of us and you could clearly see and point out the different watersheds,” she said. “In Minnesota, it’s flat and we have lakes — you don’t have to worry about ‘oh, my farm might just disappear out from underneath me.’ As we were driving around [Manizales], we could see how different ecological issues like landslides were damaging crops, which also raised questions about sustainable farming and [safety].”

The group spent a day exploring groundwater wells in the city and toured a hydroelectric power plant operating on the Chinchiná River. They also visited towns near Manizales, including Aranzazu, Santa Maria and Filandia.

They embarked on a number of nature walks, including a nighttime guided tour with an expert on local insects and had an opportunity to visit an orchid farm run by the family of one of their Colombian counterparts.

For both Heintz and Wozniak, the project was their first opportunity to travel abroad. They reported that their experiences in Colombia far exceeded their expectations.

“Nothing compares to the first-hand experience of immersing yourself in another culture,” Heintz said. “It is truly remarkable how, even in just a month, you can begin to absorb and appreciate the intricacies of different lifestyles. The opportunity to embrace a new way of living was nothing short of amazing.”

Wozniak agreed, saying he enjoyed the opportunity to see a different perspective on life in a different country and hopes to repeat the experience someday.

“I found a great desire to want to learn more Spanish, so I can fully understand the language and come back someday,” he said. “I highly recommend other students try something like this.”

Broader Impact

The BSU/UCM collaboration was just one of several environmental initiatives that have targeted the Chinchiná watershed in recent years. In addition to the 100,000 Strong project, a team of researchers from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change managed a two-decade reforestation project, starting in 2002. Related to BSU’s work, that project used reforestation as a strategy for regulating and improving the amount and quality of fresh water available for communities in the river’s watershed. South Pole, a Zurich-based organization addressing climate change and sustainability issues around the world, also recently worked on a project involving reforestation, watershed restoration and reintroduction of native species for natural regeneration in the region.

Rios-Sanchez says the interest that scientists have in studying Caldas is no surprise, given the unique ecologies found throughout the Colombian mountains. They are home to a unique ecosystems called páramos — high-altitude moorlands in the Andean mountains which Rios-Sanchez describes as “sort of a water-storage unit.”

“Soils and vegetation in these ecosystems are very good at regulating stream flow,” she said. “It is estimated that more than 8 million people depend on the mountains — and especially the páramos — for drinking water supplies.”

She added that in most cases, páramos lie just beneath the remaining glaciers in the Andes mountains.

“There is a great need to protect these fragile ecosystems,” she said.

The area is extensively researched because, according to Rios-Sanchez, the role of groundwater in these ecosystems is not
yet well known.

“These areas have complex geological units and complex topography, so new approaches to study them are required,” she said. “That is why we are working there.”

Beyond their work to study the watershed, both Heintz and Wozniak took advantage of the nearby Nevado del Ruiz volcano’s omnipresence in the local ecosystem — something not easily studied first-hand in Minnesota’s North Woods.

Wozniak said the region’s complicated ecology, shaped in no small part by millennia of volcanic activity, provided unique opportunities to study how volcanoes can impact an ecosystem.

“We got to see outcrops that exposed the history of volcanic activity, which is something I haven’t been able to observe before,” he said. “You can see indicators of that activity in the soil, similar to how the rings of a tree expose its age. Volcanic ash layers are very obvious in outcrops, and they’re much different than what we can see in Minnesota.”

Heintz also found herself fascinated by the opportunity to learn more about Nevado del Ruiz during a visit to the Volcanology and Seismology Observatory in Manizales.

“We primarily contend with lakes and snowstorms, so it was eye-opening to realize the profound impact that living near a volcano can have on your existence,” she said. “These geological forces are humbling and thought-provoking.”

She said the observatory monitored more than a dozen volcanoes, and she was particularly intrigued by the systems in place to share information with those who live in and around them. In 1985, Nevado del Ruiz erupted and the ensuing lava flows decimated the nearby village of Armero — killing more than 23,000 of its 28,000 residents.

“The volcano was putting out ash while we were there,” she said. “The Columbian government delivers information in a non-alarming way that is meant to educate the public — ’we have a level orange warning, but it’s not something to be afraid of because it’s only ash.’ This practice is crucial for volcano observatories, but could be useful for any scientific program.”


International Exchanges

This semester, students and faculty from Universidad de Católica Manizales traveled to Bemidji to complete the exchange.

“This partnership is unique to us because we were able to work in two languages on a very special topic — water,” Rios-Sanchez said. “We have access to two experimental sites [in Bemidji] where we can train people in studying and monitoring groundwater resources.”

The Colombian students and their faculty arrived in Bemidji this fall, and each Friday they travel to one of two U.S. Geological Survey sites — one in Red Lake and the other at the Shingobee Headwaters Aquatic Ecosystems Project near Akeley, which the USGS donated to Bemidji State University in August of 2021.

“There is a team of four students who were selected to come here,” Rios-Sanchez said. “One of their instructors is pursuing a Ph.D in Colombia, and she came here to learn from this work and from my classes as well.”

Rios-Sanchez said the Colombian students visited Bemidji to learn three sets of skills: how to perform maintenance on stations measuring hydrological variables, (measuring groundwater levels) and protocols for sampling surface and groundwater; how to download, process and analyze data; and how to analyze the data using statistical tools and to create groundwater flow maps.

Heintz said that Minnesota’s relatively easy-to-monitor groundwater provides an excellent opportunity for the Colombian students and their faculty to gain new skills.

“They’ll be able to take the skills they’re learning here and set up monitoring wells and be able to teach others how to monitor groundwater,” she said. “Then, they’ll be able to explore bigger questions like how to examine how climate change is affecting groundwater resources, or how they can distribute water to communities that need it through groundwater wells.

“It’s a lot of hands-on work here, and we have the infrastructure for them to bring back new skills and help a lot of people.”

Rios-Sanchez said the partnership is part of a broader project led by Universidad de Católica Manizales, along with other partners in both Colombia and Brazil.

“This project to assess the Chinchiná watershed is planned to last at least three years — and we are in the second year,” Rios-Sanchez said. “We are exploring options with UCM to keep the collaboration going.”

While the experience provided invaluable learning and, as Heintz reflected, life-changing growth opportunities for the BSU students involved, Rios-Sanchez knows the partnership’s broader impact will happen in Caldas. There, students and faculty now have new knowledge and skills they can take to the field for their work to protect the Chinchiná River watershed.

“Working with Universidad de Católica Manizales students and faculty brought not only opportunities for cultural exchange, but also the environmental aspect to our studies,” Rios-Sanchez said. “These students and faculty know the region and they have the capability to carry out a systematic monitoring of the watershed. BSU, traveling once a year, cannot accomplish that on its own.”

Thanks to Josephina Li, BSU’s North Star Visiting Scholars coordinator, and Dr. Miriam Rios-Sanchez, assistant professor of geology, for providing some initial reporting for this story.

By Andy Bartlett