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.

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