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USGS, SUNY Professors Drill for Evidence of Past

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (Sept. 25, 2009)-- Before there was a Lake Champlain, there was a Champlain Sea, which filled the entire Champlain Valley with salt water. And even before that, there was a vast sheet of ice and a cold, nearly uninhabitable Lake Vermont.Around the time that these major changes to the landscape occurred, the Earth's climate also underwent some dramatic changes.Now, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, SUNY Plattsburgh, SUNY New Paltz, and Binghamton University are hoping to piece together exactly what happened in the past so that it can inform what may happen to Earth's climate in the future.

Rayburn discusses the Champlain Sea "We discovered that the opening of the Champlain Sea occurred roughly at the same time as a major regional cooling event we call the Younger Dryas," said Dr. John Rayburn '94, a SUNY Plattsburgh alumnus who is now an assistant professor of geology at SUNY New Paltz. "There is some evidence of cooling in and around the North Atlantic at the time that this happened, so the USGS is interested in finding out if this opening was one of the triggers, and if so, how much water are we talking about and if the melting of the glaciers or the polar ice caps today would cause a similar amount of water and thereby recreate this climate change."

Looking for clues, scientists from two of the colleges and the USGS gathered Thursday on the site of Plattsburgh's old Air Force base, just adjacent to where one of them, Dr. David Franzi, a SUNY Plattsburgh geology professor, and his students recently found the bones of "Sammy" the prehistoric seal.

According to Franzi, the finding of the seal fossil was a "happy coincidence," but one that my help them calibrate their data down the road.

In the meantime, under the auspices of the USGS, the group drilled deep into the earth, collecting samples of mud from the former Champlain Sea and from the lake that existed even before the sea. These samples contain micro-fossils -- very small plant and animal material, including samples of foraminifera (single-celled organisms that lived in the sea) and ostracodes (tiny crustaceans).

Now that these samples have been gathered, Rayburn, Franzi and their students will analyze them, looking for evidence of environmental changes in the lake and marine sediments, as they try to understand what happened when the glaciers melted and what triggered the rapid late-glacial climate change more than 10,000 years ago.

"I give each student a separate core to work on, and they work on their own samples," said Franzi. "We cut the cores. We clean them up, and the students can see the different layers. And then they complete their tests."

"The findings may us give clues about how future oceans will circulate and what climates might do if more freshwater enters the North Atlantic from melting ice, river discharge or more precipitation," said Dr. Thomas M. Cronin of the USGS.

The group was very pleased about the results of the coring.

"The drilling went very smoothly," said Franzi. "The cores we collected should provide an excellent record of events and climatic changes during the deglaciation of this region."

"It's coming out very nicely," added Rayburn. "We're going to have more clues."

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