Elba rocks: Student and professor scour Italian island for geologic data © Aug. 14, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Environmental science major Dan Pellegrini hopes the data he collected on the Italian island of Elba during the summer of 2009 will contribute to a plan to better utilize the island’s water supply.

photo courtesy of David WestermanEnvironmental science major Dan Pellegrini hopes the data he collected on the Italian island of Elba during the summer of 2009 will contribute to a plan to better utilize the island’s water supply.

For a project rooted in geology and rock formations, Dan Pellegrini spent a lot of his research trip on the Italian island of Elba tangling with plants.

And not merely plants; thorns.

“Everything was thorns,” said Pellegrini, an environmental science major from Hudson, Mass., and a junior at Norwich University, the country’s oldest private military college.

There were thorns he likened to shark’s teeth, straight thorns, thorny vines and thickets of sticky raspberry bushes. Pellegrini and his mentor, Norwich geology Prof. David Westerman, frequently found themselves crawling on their knees and bellies, spending hours dragging backpacks to the next path or clearing that would allow them to move on to the real subject of the project—shelves of rock outcroppings that serve as natural dikes to groundwater.

You can tell the dikes have a huge impact on the springs. There is so much evidence to show they block the flow of water.

~ Dan Pellegrini,
environmental science major

The link between rock formations and the local plant life was water. Pellegrini and Westerman were studying how these dikes affect the flow of water as it moves beneath the surface from high ground to low. The ultimate goal of their research, and that of other public interest groups and universities, is to help Elba recover more of this resource.

“Water was rare; very rare at the surface,” said Westerman, who has been studying the rock formations for more than 10 years. “It’s pretty precious.”

Elba, an island in the Tuscany region famed as the location of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brief exile in 1814, is home to about 30,000 people, and numbers swell during the vacation season. A problem is that most fresh water is provided by a tube from the mainland.

“Twenty years ago they put in this tube to bring in fresh water,” said Westerman. “The lifetime on this tube is 20 years. ... They don’t know what to do.”

Scientists are trying to locate areas where water flow is robust enough to merit the building of spring houses to collect it. Otherwise, the water tends to ooze up slowly through soil, creating mud that is contaminated by pigs and other rooting creatures.

Westerman characterized the problem as fundamental. “Does it get polluted before you can profitably recover it?” he said, adding that their research during the 28-day trip led them to conclude that the key to finding water sources is the careful mapping and analysis of dikes.

The rock formations were created millions of years ago when volcanic magma forced open and flowed through cracks in the underlying rock structure. About 90 kilometers [56 miles] of dikes have been mapped on Elba, some in sheets up to 10 kilometers long. Initially, they weren’t sure if dikes created highway-like channels to direct the water, or whether rock formations broke up the flow, bringing the smaller canals of water together in “point sources.” This turned out to be the case.

To locate these areas of confluence, Pellegrini made more than 1,700 measurements of outcroppings, the orientations of sets of dikes, and the locations of prominent water sources. They spent many days crawling around the northern side of Monte Capanne, the highest peak on the island at about 3,280 feet. They encountered packs of wild goats and examined old spring houses dating back to the time of Napoleon.

He was amazed by how much they were able to learn from this data, and how conclusive the study was.

“You can tell the dikes have a huge impact on the springs,” said Pellegrini. “There is so much evidence to show they block the flow of water.”

Pellegrini, a civilian student at Norwich, a Northfield, Vt., school that offers both traditional and military lifestyles, has been interested in the natural world since high school and relished the opportunity to spend several weeks on a beautiful island collecting information that may help people improve their lives.

“You have a problem,” he said. “If you want to develop springs, you have to understand the natural source of the water.”

Pellegrini and Westerman lived on the northern coast of the island, and drove and hiked to higher ground most days. One time, they took a cable car, described as a “big yellow basket,” to the summit of Monte Capanne, and descended on foot. The project also required them to spend time with other researchers at the University of Pisa. Pellegrini spent the rest of his summer fashioning the data into a report that will be used to strengthen a grant proposal for a better water system on Elba.

Pellegrini’s trip, funded partially by the Norwich Summer Research Fellowship Program, is the second time Westerman has taken a student to the island. He hopes the relationship will continue.

“We had a great time,” said Westerman. “How could you not?”