1,000 years of glacial ice reveal ‘prosperity and peril’ in Europe

1,000 years of glacial ice reveal ‘prosperity and peril’ in Europe

Above: Researchers’ ice core drilling camp on Colle Gnifetti in 2015. Two ice cores extracted from this area preserved a continuous one-thousand-year record of European climate and vegetation. Credit: Margit Schwikowski.

Evidence preserved in glaciers provides continuous climate and vegetation records during major historical events

Reposted from AGU – https://news.agu.org/press-release/1000-years-of-glacial-ice-reveal-prosperity-and-peril-in-europe/

RENO, Nev. – Europe’s past prosperity and failure, driven by climate changes, has been revealed using thousand-year-old pollen, spores and charcoal particles fossilized in glacial ice. This first analysis of microfossils preserved in European glaciers unveils earlier-than-expected evidence of air pollution and the roots of modern invasive species problems.

A new study analyzed pollen, spores, charcoal and other pollutants frozen in the Colle Gnifetti glacier on the Swiss and Italian border. The research found changes in the composition of these microfossils corresponded closely with known major events in climate, such as the Little Ice Age and well-established volcanic eruptions.

The work was published in Geophysical Research Letters, which publishes high-impact, short-format reports with immediate implications spanning all Earth and space sciences.

The industrialization of European society also appeared clearly in the microfossil record and, in some cases, showed up sooner than expected. Pollen from the introduction of non-native crops was found to go back at least 100 years ago and pollution from the burning of fossil fuels shows up in the 18th century, about 100 years earlier than expected.

Existing historical sources such as church records or diaries record conditions during major events like droughts or famines. However, studying data from the glaciers contributes to the understanding of climate and land use surrounding such events, providing non-stop context for them with evidence from a large land area. Precisely identifying the timing of these events can help scientists better understand current climate change.

“The historical sources that were available before, I don’t think [the sources] got the full picture of the environmental context,” said Sandra Brugger, a paleoecologist at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada and lead researcher on the study. “But also, with the ice core, we couldn’t get the full picture until we started collaborating with historians on this. It needs those two sides of the coin.”

Evidence on High

The new study analyzed microfossils frozen in two 82- and 75-meter-long ice cores pulled from the Colle Gnifetti glacier, which are the first two ice cores from the continent of Europe studied for microfossils. Similar studies have sampled ice cores in South America, Central Asia and Greenland, but those regions lack the breadth of written historical records that can be directly correlated with the continuous microfossil data in ice cores.

Over the centuries, wind, rain and snow carried microfossils from European lowlands, the United Kingdom and North Africa to the exposed glacier. Ice in this glacier site dates back tens of thousands of years, and the altitude of Colle Gnifetti — 4,450 meters above sea level — means the ice was likely never subjected to melting, which would mix the layers of samples and create uncertainty in the chronology of the record.

“They can actually pinpoint and identify the relationships between what’s happening on the continent with climatic records inherent in the ice,” said John Birks, a paleoecologist at the University of Bergen who was not associated with the study. “They can develop, in a stronger way, this link between human civilization and change and climate, particularly in the last thousand years or so where conventional pollen analysis is rather weak.”

Evidence of pollution due to fossil fuel combustion also appeared earlier in the chronological record than expected. The researchers found evidence of the early burning of coal in the United Kingdom around 1780, much earlier than the expected onset of industrialization around 1850, which could have implications for global climate change modeling.

The records also showed evidence of pollen from non-native European plants from 100 years ago, showing a long legacy of the existing ecological problems created by invasive species transported across continents through trade.


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New DRI projects for 2021 include microplastics, microfossils, snowmelt risk, and solute transport

New DRI projects for 2021 include microplastics, microfossils, snowmelt risk, and solute transport

New DRI projects for 2021 include microplastics, microfossils, snowmelt risk, and solute transport

FEB 26, 2021

Introducing the winners of DRI’s 2021 Institute Project Assignment (IPA) competition.

Each year, the Desert Research Institute awards funding to several new faculty and staff projects each year through its Institute Project Assignment (IPA) competition. Winners of the IPA competition receive a research grant from DRI to pursue a topic that interests them and develop ideas that can ultimately be turned into externally funded research projects. This year, winners of the IPA competition are DRI scientists Erick Bandala, Monica Arienzo, Sandra Bruegger, Benjamin Hatchett, and Lazaro Perez. Details about each project are below.

Erick Bandala and Monica Arienzo: Assessing environmental aging of microplastics

Microplastics, defined as plastic fragments smaller than 5mm, were first discovered in the natural environment in the early 2000s. Two decades later, much is still unknown about these pollutants – including how microplastic particles degrade or break down as they age. A new project led by Erick Bandala, Ph.D., and Monica Arienzo, Ph.D., will assess the environmental aging of microplastic particles through accelerated aging tests, using UV-A radiation to imitate the effects of unfiltered sunlight over different time spans on microplastics of different types, shapes, and sizes. Their results will provide new insight into the fate of microplastics after their release into the environment.

Closeup of microplastic fibers

A close-up image of microplastic fibers. Credit: DRI.

Benjamin Hatchett and Anne Heggli: Towards improved decision support for snow-covered watersheds: A snowmelt risk advisory

Rain-on-snow events (in which a warm winter storm rains onto existing snowpack under windy and humid conditions) are linked to many of the largest floods in Nevada and other parts of the United States. These types of events are projected to increase in frequency and magnitude as the climate warms. This change creates new challenges for water managers, who are tasked with deciding when water should be stored in reservoirs for economic and ecological benefits, and when water should be released downstream for flood control and public safety. To help water managers make decisions using the best available data, Division of Atmospheric Sciences graduate student Anne Heggli, advised by Benjamin Hatchett, Ph.D., will design and develop a tool called a Snowmelt Risk Advisory (SRA). This framework will combine risk matrices with weather datasets to create a tool that will help inform reservoir operations in snow-dominated watersheds.

A ski lift at Kirkwood ski resort during a warm storm

A rain-on-snow event at Kirkwood Ski Area. Credit: Ben Hatchett/DRI.

Sandra Brugger: Microfossils in Greenland Ice – Establishing a new method at DRI

Greenland’s ice sheets hold important records of pollen grains and other microfossils that can provide researchers with insight into long-term environmental change in the Arctic, however, these resources have not yet been studied extensively. Recently, Sandra Brugger, Ph.D., developed a new method for extracting microfossils from Greenland ice cores and created the first reliable record of microfossils from well-dated Greenland ice, with a second record currently under development. With IPA funding, Bruegger will hold a workshop to train additional scientists in her methodology, and develop a microfossil record from east-central Greenland ice spanning the past 8000 years. She will also give a talk to the local community at the Alta Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Reno, sharing her research with an audience that has been isolated for months during the pandemic.

DRI scientist Sandra Brugger inspects samples under a microscope. Credit: Manu Friederich

DRI scientist Sandra Brugger inspects samples under a microscope. Credit: Manu Friederich.

Lazaro Perez: Tortuosity Characterization via Machine Learning to Quantify Solute Transport in Berea Sandstone

Understanding and predicting the fate of solutes (dissolved substances) as they pass through various types of rocks and soils in a groundwater system is crucial for several environmental and industrial applications, but modeling this process is complex. Building on work completed as part of an IPA-funded project in 2020, Lazaro J. Perez, Ph.D., will use training data for the development of a machine-learning algorithm to predict solute transport through material containing pores of different sizes, such as sandstone. Dr. Perez’s work, focused on solute transport simulations on pore-scale images of two types of sandstones, will help scientists better understand processes as diverse as contaminant transport in groundwater flow and protein diffusion in living cells.

DRI scientist Lazaro Perez

DRI scientist Lazaro Perez.

Meet Sandra Brugger, Ph.D.

Meet Sandra Brugger, Ph.D.

Sandra Brugger, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Researcher with DRI’s Division of Hydrologic Sciences, and a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Fellow.

DRI: What brought you to DRI?

Brugger: I started at DRI in October 2019 with an Early Postdoc Mobility grant funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). DRI is home of one of the world-leading ice core labs. I am extremely grateful that I could join Professor Joe McConnell’s ice core group in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences (DHS) and be co-supervised by Professor Dave Rhode in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences (DEES).

DRI: What are your research interests?

Brugger: I am interested in past vegetation dynamics and their relationship with climate change and human activities. Using optical pollen, charcoal, and other microfossil analyses in ice cores, we can infer how the ecosystems and fire regimes have changed over time. We can then try to reconstruct sensitive ecosystems in high latitude regions to gain a better understanding how they will react to rapid global warming.

DRI: What is the SNSF Fellows Virtual Conference?

Brugger: The conference is a multidisciplinary platform where Postdoc fellows are sharing their exciting results and show how diverse the research is that the Swiss National Science Foundation is funding with over 700 projects around the world.

DRI: How did you get involved in helping lead this unique event?

Brugger: Most conferences were cancelled this summer. Young scientists rely very much on presenting their results, networking at scientific meetings, and interacting with other research fellows. Therefore, my SNSF-Mobility fellow Tobias Schneider (University of Massachusetts) and I spontaneously decided on a Friday evening over a virtual glass of wine on Zoom to turn our own pandemic misery into a virtual conference for us and our fellow SNSF-postdoc fellows in the US and around the world. Six weeks and several virtual wine glasses later, we are ready and excited to host the four-day long conference on Zoom.

The multidisciplinary character of the conference is also reflected in the exciting keynotes that will be presenting their research. Among them, we have two from DRI: Professor Monica Arienzo will introduce us to her latest research on microplastics in Alpine environments, and Professor Joe McConnell will be presenting on Roman lead pollution in Arctic ice cores.

Since we have one thing in common among all fellows, the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to hold a daily panel on COVID-19 with invited frontline workers that will be hosted by Theresa Watts, Professor at ORVIS School of Nursing at UNR. On Thursday, Professor Ajay Sethi from the University of Wisconsin-Madison will give a keynote on conspiracy theories around COVID-19.

Sandra Brugger (Klimaforscherin), Institute of Plant Sciences, PhD student – Palaeoecology. © Manu Friederich

DRI: What are you hoping to accomplish? What would be the best outcome for this event?

Brugger: We hope to provide an inspiring meeting where people can present their work, get new input, and maybe even provide additional research motivation during difficult home-office situations they are experiencing. And above all, we are excited to get to know our fellows and their fascinating research projects.

DRI: How can people get involved or watch the event?

Brugger: The event is free of registration and will be hosted on three platforms: Zoom, Youtube and Remo. The program and the links to join the virtual conference can be found on our Event website: https://www.swissnexboston.org/event/snsf-fellows-conference/ hosted by Swissnex Boston, our partner for the conference.

DRI: How has your work been impacted by the pandemic?

Brugger: My own research has been severely impacted. I started the project only 8 months ago and since March we have only very limited access to lab facilities. This is critical for sample preparation and analyzing data in this early stage of the project.

Also, our group had to cancel fieldwork and as mentioned above, most conferences got cancelled this summer and for the upcoming months hopefully can be replaced by virtual meetings. It was a tough time to arrive new to the USA from Switzerland and to face the pandemic in a foreign country.