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Drilling down: Union professor to study Peruvian lake for clues to climate change


Don Rodbell, center, professor and chair of the Geology Department, on the shore of Lake Junin in  June 2011 as part of an international meeting focused on the lake. Others include (from left) Sasha Rothenberg '12, Chris Moy '98, former Union faculty member Jacquie Smith and Nick Balascio '01.
Don Rodbell, center, professor and chair of the Geology Department, on the shore of Lake Junin in June 2011 as part of an international meeting focused on the lake. Others include (from left) Sasha Rothenberg '12, Chris Moy '98, former Union faculty member Jacquie Smith and Nick Balascio '01.

For researchers hoping to better understand climate change and predict future regional trends, few lakes offer the tantalizing clues buried deep within Lake Junin.

The largest lake located entirely in Peru, Lake Junin is among the oldest lake basins in South America, with a sediment record that may stretch back more than 250,000 years.

To people like Don Rodbell, professor and chair of the Geology Department, the opportunity to probe, monitor and analyze a basin between the eastern and western Andean mountain chains to understand the natural variability of Earth’s climate is intriguing.

Rodbell will lead a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Oregon State University, University of Pittsburgh, Florida Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a new project funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences, Paleo Perspectives on Climate Change Program.

The Lake Junin Project is part of the International Continental Drilling Program. One of the program’s aims is to acquire long records of climate change from lake sediments preserved in the oldest lakes on the planet.

In the past two decades, many lakes around the world have been cored for clues. In a highly competitive process, the ICDP selects one or two lakes each year as sites for deep drilling to uncover data stored in ice cores, cave deposits and lake sediment.

Rodbell has been advocating for Lake Junin to be drilled since he first started taking students there in 1996. He wants to build on prior research that showed that Lake Junin records the waxing and waning of nearby alpine glaciers and changes in regional water balance through the isotope geochemistry of calcium carbonate deposited on the lake bottom.

Through Rodbell’s efforts, an international workshop was held in 2011 so scientists could visit the site and evaluate its importance for funding.

After securing a grant of $550,000 from the ICDP to partially cover the costs of drilling, he and his team submitted a proposal to the NSF to cover the remaining costs. In the first year of the grant, Rodbell’s share is $175,658. If all goes well, he will receive more than $1.2 million over four years. The combined award of the grant for all institutions involved is $2.6 million.

Students will also get a chance to participate in the research, which began this month. The project includes the renovation of an abandoned lodge to be used by officials of the Junin National Reserve. It will also be used as a visitor center and as a lake access point for ecotourism.

“Lake Junin is exceptional in the length of record that it contains, but also in the climate signals that it records,” Rodbell said. “This research will develop these and other proxy climate records for the full length of recovered core; the records generated will comprise one of the longest continuous records of climate and environmental change from the inner tropics.”

To learn more about the project, click here.