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Research On Polar Region Algae Clues Scientists Into Changing Climate

More than 40 researchers from around the world gathered in northwest Iowa last week to share their studies on single-celled algae organisms called polar marine diatoms. These organisms are the base of the food web in the polar regions and can reveal a lot about the Earth’s changing climate.
The researchers spent the last week at the Iowa Lakeside Lab in the Iowa Great Lakes area networking and getting feedback on their work. The Milford lab, which overlooks West Okoboji Lake, is a hub for diatom research.

Researchers use the workshop, which has been held every couple of years since 2002, to form collaborations and get on the same page in how they classify these organisms.

David Harwood, a professor at the University of Nebraska, has been studying algae shells that pile up on the seafloor to understand how they’ve evolved over time and how old they are.

“And as the sediment pile builds up, we’re progressively going from older sediments up to younger sediments,” Harwood said. “We look at the diatoms in the old sediments, we see their changes as they move up, which is reflecting the evolution of the diatoms.”

Harwood says reconstructing the past allows researchers to better predict the future. This applies to the Earth’s rising carbon dioxide levels, as scientists work to better understand how the past shaped the present and use computer models to predict where the planet is headed.

“Whether it’s a lake here in Iowa, a sediment core in Antarctica – by studying these, it gives us a perspective and a history on what has happened in the past, so we can better assess what is not natural,” Harwood said. “Changes we’re seeing in our environment now are pretty severe and a result of what we’re doing.”

One of the values of the workshop, Harwood said, is meeting young students who are passionate about the research. Meghan Duffy recently finished her undergraduate degree and will start her masters at Louisiana State University next week.

Duffy has been trying to understand how Antarctica and the Antarctic ice sheet have responded to climate change in the past, which could help scientists understand the future of the Antarctic.

“Understanding climate change, particularly at the poles, is really important because of the impact it can have on a global scale in terms of ice loss, sea level rise worldwide,” Duffy said.

She said it is inspiring to work with people who have been researching diatoms for decades.

“It’s great to be a young student and be able to work right next to, at the same microscope as some of the people that are really famous in the field.”

This is the first time the workshop was held in the United States since 2007 – when it was held in Nebraska.