Dr. Jeffrey Snyder

Dr. Jeffrey Snyder

BGSU geologist part of international effort to get to core of Arctic climate

BGSU geologist Dr. Jeffrey Snyder is among an international group of scientists hoping to unearth the most detailed record of past Arctic climate to date.

Led by Dr. Julie Brigham-Grette of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the team has received $3.2 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for an expedition to seek data from a polar lake in northeastern Siberia.

Snyder will receive about $121,000 of the funding for his part in the research, which focuses on Lake El’gygytgyn. Roughly nine miles in diameter, the lake was formed when a meteorite hit Siberia about 3.6 million years ago. Unlike much of the Arctic, it was never covered by glaciers or ice sheets and thus has received a steady accumulation of sediment since the time of impact. Brigham-Grette and her team will collect deep cores of the sediment—cylindrical columns of dense muck that should provide a detailed narrative of the past climate of the Arctic.

Lake El'gygytgyn in Siberia
The camp used by a team of scientists is visible on the southern shore of Lake El'gygytgyn in Siberia. The researchers will return in early 2008 to extract sediment cores that will shed light on the Arctic climate of the past.
Photo by Julie Brigham-Grette, UMass-Amherst

Sediment cores that the scientists took in 2003 have already provided the oldest continuous terrestrial record of the Arctic—one 16.7-meter core dated to 300,000 years ago. Now the researchers want to go even deeper—to the bedrock below the lake to extract cores dating back to the impact that created it.

Once the cores are extracted, the assemblage of pollen grains, algae and bacteria within the sediment will tell the scientists what was living in and around the lake throughout its history. Snyder, at BGSU, will be one of the team members who will analyze samples from the cores.

He will be looking specifically at diatoms—single-celled, silica-covered algae that have accumulated in the sediment. The work is not new to Snyder, a longtime acquaintance of Brigham-Grette’s. He has also examined diatoms from many smaller, glacier-formed lakes in the western Russian Arctic. But Lake El’gygytgyn, or “Lake E,” is “a very different system because of its origin, size and age,” he says.

The researchers will also read the cores for changes in geochemistry, the magnetic orientation of the muck’s minerals and other parameters that capture what has happened to the Arctic’s climate since the time of impact. These data will be compared with cores taken by other teams from the north Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as tropical oceans, allowing scientists to address climate change questions on a broad scale.

The NSF funding is the U.S. portion of a nearly $8 million investment also involving the governments of Germany, Russia and Canada, and the International Continental Drilling Program. That program is a collaboration of more than a dozen countries that supports scientific drilling projects investigating the geological and geophysical processes of the Earth’s crust. The NSF funds come from its Earth Sciences Division and Office of Polar Programs.

The research will occur during the fourth International Polar Year (2007-08), which aims to provide a better understanding of the world’s polar regions through international coordination and cooperation by scientists and governments.

Through 2007, Brigham-Grette will be getting permits, buying materials and arranging for the on-site team’s equipment to travel to Lake E at year-end by sled convoys and cargo planes. The permafrost will only be able to support the weight of the equipment during the frozen months.

Getting the scientists to the lake will be no small task, either. It’s nine time zones east of Moscow, and no roads lead to it. Pevek, a town on the coast of the East Siberian Sea, has the closest airport, and from there the researchers will travel the final 155 miles inland to the lake by rented helicopters.

Next January, the team will pitch a small camp at the lake, roughly 35 beds that they will call home the next four months. Snyder says he expects to collect samples from the cores in summer 2008.

The campers’ stay may include encounters with 50 to 60 mile-per-hour winds, frigid temperatures and wild neighbors including caribou and wolves, says Brigham-Grette.

But gaining understanding of the natural climatic variations of the Arctic—such as which aspects are cyclic and which are stable—will illuminate how the region evolved from a warm ecosystem blanketed in forest to a cold one covered in permafrost. And ultimately it could give scientists a glimpse at the Arctic of tomorrow, she adds.
“Examining climate change is like reconstructing a puzzle—a 500-piece puzzle, and we have maybe 80 to 90 pieces,” says Brigham-Grette. “This work will fill in a lot of gaps in reconstructing why the Arctic is the way it is today and what it may be like in the future.”

February 12, 2007