Western scientists study the past to predict the future

  • Michelle Nijhuis

 

High in the White Mountains of eastern California, far above the deserts of the Great Basin, stands the Methuselah Grove, a group of gnarly, thick-bellied bristlecone pines sculpted and polished by centuries of blowing snow. All of the trees are ancient, and one of them -- the Forest Service won't say which -- is more than 4,800 years old, a leading candidate for the world's oldest living thing. To tree-ring scientists, who use variations in the rings of extremely old trees to piece together the history of climate and wildfire, the Methuselah Grove is a sacred place.

In the West and beyond, as High Country News has reported in recent years, places like the Methuselah Grove also hold clues to the future. By studying tree rings, layers of glacial ice, and deposits of waterlogged mud, researchers can not only reconstruct past climates, but also better predict how rising greenhouse gas levels will change our current climate's long-established habits.

Now, as science journalist Douglas Fox writes in this issue of HCN, scientists are probing even more deeply into the Western past. When the first humans passed through the Great Basin some 14,000 years ago, they encountered not the desert we know today but an enormous lake -- an inland ocean as broad as Lake Superior and hundreds of feet deep.

The lake, today called Lake Bonneville, is long gone, but traces of it remain in the geology of the Great Basin. Within those traces is a story even older than the bristlecones of the Methuselah Grove -- if you know where to look, that is. Fox followed a team of scientists into the remains of the Bonneville lakebed in northwestern Utah, where he scrambled up old shorelines, sniffed the stinking remains of aged aquatic life, and watched as the researchers slowly cracked open the history of the lake. Climate historians, it turns out, need a lot of patience and some very sturdy shoes.

The story of the great lake's rise and fall is interesting for its own sake, but it tells us something about the future, too: As Fox explains, the lake's long-ago shifts imply that droughts have had outsized effects on the hydrology of the West. As climate change drives drought, the already dry West is likely to get a whole lot drier.

"The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory," the 17th century English politician George Savile once observed. Savile, famous for his wit and free-ranging curiosity, might have appreciated a sweaty clamber up the shores of Lake Bonneville: Though the Bonneville climate scientists would never pretend to be prophets, they are lengthening our collective memory -- and, we can hope, sharpening our view of what's to come.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SECLUDED COLORADO HIDEAWAY
    This passive solar home sits on 2 lots and offers an abundance of privacy and views while being only 15 minutes to downtown Buena Vista....
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...