A contraption resembling an over sized push lawn mower is the latest tool Dave White has to explore terrain pocked with caves, sinkholes and other hidden geological secrets.
The portable ground-penetrating radar unit will help increase knowledge of the area's karst topography — a Swiss cheese of caves, sinkholes and other features in limestone bedrock.
White is program manager for the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, the group watchdogging the quality of Springfield's water supply. The group also educates the public on water quality issues.
One of the first ventures could help determine the extent of what's termed one of the country's most pristine Ice Age caves.
"There's big interest in using it at Riverbluff Cave," he said of the Swedish-made equipment. It consists of a radar antenna, a battery and a control unit feeding data into a portable computer displaying the progress of the unit's electromagnetic waves and what they reveal.
The unit works the same as radar that scopes out airplanes or storm clouds, but it sends electromagnetic pulses downward instead of skyward.
White isn't the only person who thinks the radar unit might prove useful in revealing more of the cave's mysteries.
Dave Coonrod, Greene County presiding commissioner, said he's eager to see if it helps resolve tantalizing hints that there are passages in Riverbluff that haven't been reached and may be too difficult to explore easily.
Coonrod was watching MSU geology professor Kevin Mickus push the MALA GeoSciences RAMAG/GPR unit through the committee's parking lot and over a portion of Water Street covering Jordan Creek.
"What's most exciting is the prospect of finding areas we haven't seen," he said. "You could go out there and go over the top and see if there are any other voids."
Mickus and other MSU researchers will use the unit, and so will the Watershed Committee. It will also be made available to the city, Greene County and City Utilities. All those groups were sponsors, executive director Loring Bullard said.
The cost of the $52,000 unit was shared by MSU and the Watershed Committee. The equipment will make gathering information on underground features faster, particularly if an environmental problem is involved, Bullard said.
The University of Missouri-Rolla and the Department of Natural Resources have ground-penetrating radar units, but they often are not available on short notice, Bullard said.
Mickus cautioned the unit is not a replacement for old-fashioned field work, however.
Its effectiveness depends largely on using the most appropriate set of antennae, on soil conditions and on what's being searched for, he said.
Wet clay tends to absorb the unit's electromagnetic pulses, for instance, he said.
Having a tool to explore underground mysteries, such as the source of an underground water flow on his land, intrigued Verona farmer Steve Ruscha, who stopped by to see the radar unit demonstrated.
And the equipment, which can detect anything from a highway reinforcing bar to [***buried bodies,] could have other applications, he joked.
"We're hoping there's a bunch of Spanish gold buried there," he said.