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Measuring Millennia in “Devil’s Hole”

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On the verge of the historic COP21 agreement, climate scientists and policy makers have set their sights on the future. Recently, that future has come to include the pollution-reduction pledges of the Paris agreement, which would permit the atmospheric temperature to increase only 2.7o Celsius by 2100.

To arrive at these precise calculations and conclusions, the climate community relies on accurate climate models such as those provided by Austrian scientists at the University of Innsbruck, who are currently scavenging through the subsurface of Nevada to shine new light on historical climate developments.


Source: Institute of Geology, University of Innsbruck 

Nevada is renowned among travelers for its pristine natural beauty. However, it is cherished even more among geologists for its distinctive geological features. One place in particular serves as a valuable scientific site: Devil’s Hole.

Within Devil’s Hole, calcite deposits allow scientists such as University of Innsbruck geologist Christoph Spötl to read a story that stretches back thousands of years. In fact, the calcite deposits that Spötl and his team are currently researching provide an amazing chronological record of climate changes over the past 500,000 years!

 Source: Institute of Geology, University of Innsbruck 

The Austrian scientists sample calcite drill cores from above the groundwater table and determine their age. Calcite crystals crystallize very slowly, forming layers that become visible and measurable – similar to tree rings. This record enables Spötl to pinpoint climate alterations that occurred thousands of years ago.

As Spötl notes: “[Some] 780,000 years ago … the Earth’s magnetic field turned by 180 degrees.” Records of this pole reversal have been preserved in the deeper calcite layers of Devil’s Hole, a geologic record that the scientists discovered during their cooperative project with Leoben University of Mining Sciences.

 Source: Institute of Geology, University of Innsbruck 

But pole changes are not the only parameters that the expects to measure during their efforts in Nevada. In addition, the University of Innsbruck scientists will investigate the temperature of the water reservoir and fluctuations in the groundwater table during thousands of years.

For the first time, researchers can examine evidence of at least eight glacial-interglacial cycles from a terrestrial archive other than Antarctica. In this arid desert region of Nevada, calcite deposits – rather than ice cores – provide a detailed record of past episodes of humidity and climate change.

Christoph Spötl and his team may well be on the cusp of investigating climate records extending a million years into the past, information that will be invaluable to climate scientists and policy makers now and in the future.


Project Details


Christoph Spötl and his team are supported and funded through the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). The University of Innsbruck team is also supported through an international network of external collaborators: Larry Edwards and Hai Cheng (University of Minnesota), Jon Woodhead (Melbourne University), Hagit Affek (Yale University), Robert Scholger (Leoben University), and Philip Hopley (University of London).




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Guest Sunday, 20 August 2017