Scientists are using ancient pollen to help predict what’s next for California’s flora
A radio version of this story aired on The California Report.
Clear Lake is one of the largest lakes in the state, and one of the oldest in North America. For half a million years or more, pollen and dead bugs have been collecting on the bottom. That gives scientists a unique opportunity to look deep into California’s past to learn what’s grown here through ice ages and warmer “interglacial” periods.
Dr. Cindy Looy, an assistant professor in Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology, is leading a project to core Clear Lake, unearthing sediment that’s been collecting on the lake bed for up to 200,000 years. Looy is especially interested in the interglacials, times between ice ages, when the climate was warmer. We’re in one now — it began about 12,000 years ago — but Looy is prospecting in the one that began about 130,000 years ago, when the earth might have been warmer than it is now.
“There are a lot of people working on models to predict what the climate will look like,” she says. “In order to find out how plant life and animal life will respond to climate change, you can go back in the past, to periods where the climate was changing rapidly and even getting warmer than it is today.”
Video produced by Harry Gregory.
Looy is looking for pollen in the cores, to learn what plants grew around Clear Lake when the climate was warmer, and how the plant life changed as the climate did. Then she’ll compare that data to models other scientists have made that attempt to paint a picture of California’s future landscape.
To extract the cores, Looy and her team are working on a barge that looks — and sounds — like a construction site that sprouted in the middle of the lake. In fact, they rented the barge from a local construction company. DOSECC, a company that specializes in scientific drilling (the name stands for Drilling, Observation and Sampling of the Earth’s Continental Crust), supplied the drill and the drillers — the drill they’re using would normally be used for mining for precious metals.
Looy acknowledges that her previous ecology fieldwork didn’t quite look like this. “Normally we go into a forest and we say ‘OK, I’m going to measure all the plants, for instance, in a 100 x 100 meter area,’ but this is completely different,” she shouts, over the incessant racket on the barge. “It’s a different type of work.”
As DOSECC’s drillers pull the cores up from the lake bed, they hand them off to UC Berkeley grad students, who work with scientists from LacCore, a group that works exclusively on lake cores. The students cut the ten-foot cores into more manageable segments, then seal and label them.
The cores will eventually go to LacCore’s facilities at the University of Minnesota, where half of each one will be stored permanently, in a library of lake bed cores from all over the world. Looy will slice up and analyze the other half, counting and identifying miniscule pollen grains, documenting what it looked like around Clear Lake through the ages. And that will help us imagine what the landscape around Clear Lake will look like in the future.
Looy’s Clear Lake coring project is part of the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology, a program focused on cutting edge, cross-disciplinary climate change research.