Connecticut College biologist gets federal grant for Arctic climate change research

New London — A $226,763 federal grant will allow a Connecticut College professor to continue researching samples from an ancient Arctic lake that he said can help scientists assess the potential impacts of climate change.

The National Science Foundation grant will allow Peter Siver, the director of the environmental studies program at Conn, to continue more than a decade of work researching core samples taken by a diamond mining company in the 1990s.

After the diamond mining company determined the core samples — each several inches wide and more than 100 meters long — were not useful, they handed them over to scientists who wished to study the microbial fossils hidden inside.

With Alexander Wolfe, a researcher from the University of Alberta, Siver said he has discovered evidence that the area around the ancient lake — now a frozen tundra in Canada's Northwest Territories — once had a similar climate to Memphis and was populated with tropical sponges and even palm trees.

Each small piece of the rock samples, now stored at the Geological Survey of Canada in Calgary, Alberta, could contain previously undiscovered species, Siver said.

"I can spend a day minimum ... looking at five millimeters of it," he said.

And some of the discoveries could be valuable for other biologists, like a fish expert at the University of Chicago who has requested that Siver send him a fish fossil he discovered in one of the Arctic core samples.

"There's only a couple people that really understand freshwater fishes from that time period," Siver said. "He's in heaven getting that fossil."

Siver said the grant, which he was awarded at  the end of June, will allow him and his fellow researchers and students to continue studying the prehistoric evolution of the lake between 48 million and 45 million years ago, during the Eocene period, by looking at the organisms that lived there.

The National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency, has already provided two other grants totalling more than $600,000 to him for this project, he said. Since 2005, the researchers have published more than 30 journal articles with research findings from the samples.

That research, he said, will be handy for predicting how Arctic environments would react if carbon levels push global temperatures higher.

"We really want to ... piece together the whole history of the lake, from inception as a lake to its transition to a bog and a wetland and eventually to a terrestrial system," he said.

Siver, an expert on the microscopic algae that inhabit freshwater lakes in North America, said the ecosystems revealed in the core samples show how the Arctic could look if global warming causes temperatures there to continue to rise.

The grant will allow Siver, Wolfe and Siver's research associate, Anne Lizarralde, to continue to study the lake's historical chemical conditions and ecosystems for another three or four years, he said.

Next summer, they will also include undergraduate students at Conn from biology and botany classes, as well as education students who can use the research as a opportunity to practice teaching about scientific research and film students who might document the process.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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