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Indonesian drilling project will settle climate change arguments, scientists say

Before scientists like Galileo contributed to the development of the thermometer in the 17th century, there was no way to accurately measure and record temperature.

So when it comes to climate change, determining with any certainty whether it’s been naturally occurring over the last few hundred thousand years, or if it’s a more recent phenomenon, can be tricky business in the absence of any precise historical data to cite.

Now two UWindsor scientists are taking part in a massive research initiative in a remote section of Indonesia that will take the guesswork out of the debate. Doug Haffner and Brian Fryer, both professors at the university’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, will join the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, a deep core drilling project that takes bio-geophysical samples from various sites around the world in hopes of addressing some of the planet’s most important scientific questions.

Drs. Haffner and Fryer will work in Lake Towuti, a 560-square kilometer lake located on Sulawesi Island in the heart of the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool. Along with tropical Africa and the Amazon basin, that region—which straddles the eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean—is responsible for the deep atmospheric convection that energizes the earth’s heat and moisture levels and exerts enormous influence on global climate. The moisture that moves up into the atmosphere there is responsible for driving such global environmental phenomena as El Nino.

The core samples they’ll drill out from below the bottom of the 200-meter deep lake will provide a high-resolution paleo-climate record spanning the last 700,000 years. One of the most important elements they expect to find will be layers of ash from ancient volcanoes that will provide accurate dating profiles.  The research team will develop multiple proxies of historic temperature records using such biological tracers as leaf waxes and small, single-cell algal plants called diatoms, as well as such physical tracers such as light and heavy isotopes.

Increasing levels of carbon dioxode in the atmosphere are a key contributor to the greenhouse effect, so by doing sediment analysis of the heavy isotopes, the scientists will be able to determine what those levels were more than 600,000 years ago. That data will provide new insight as to whether the increase in carbon dioxide has been a dramatic spike over the last several hundred years, or if it occurred steadily over hundreds of thousands of years.

“This kind of record should really start answering a lot of questions about the impact of human activity on climate change or whether we’re in a natural cycle,” Haffner said. “This lake is probably close to a million years old and it’s like a memory bank. This will be just about the most important set of data we can get. It becomes a perfect climate record for the last 700,000 years.”

Drilling isn’t expected to begin until 2014, but Haffner is already gearing up for the project. One of his specific roles will be to analyze the samples for diatoms preserved in the sediment.

“These samples will provide us with unique insight into long term changes in the ecosystem, as well as the microbial processes operating at depth in the sediment column,” he said.

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