Montana State University

MSU looks to Iceland for answers about global warming

August 5, 2010 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Wyatt Cross (closest to camera) and Icelandic collaborator Gisli Mar Gislason, record their observations of a naturally warm stream in the Hengill watershed of Iceland. (Photo courtesy of Wyatt Cross).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Montana State University students and faculty are in Iceland this summer, gathering information from the "perfect laboratory" for studying climate change in the upper northern latitudes.

Iceland's streams are ideal study systems in the far north, an area of the world where scientists expect the most severe climate warming to occur, said MSU ecologist Wyatt Cross.

He and his collaborators in a four-year study funded by the National Science Foundation will concentrate on one watershed that contains over 15 streams, Cross said. Some of the streams are hot and some are cold, but their water chemistry is almost identical. The streams are heated indirectly by geothermal activity and have likely been at these temperatures for hundreds of years.

"This site represents an unparalleled opportunity to test hypotheses regarding ecosystem-level responses to climate warming," Cross said.

Cathy Whitlock, director of MSU's Interdisciplinary Environmental Initiatives, said Iceland offers Cross the chance to conduct natural experiments in an "unperturbed, pristine system. Lessons that he learns there are broadly applicable to watersheds in this region (of the United States)."

She added that studies like Cross's are pivotal to the mission of MSU's Institute of the Environment, which is in the planning stages. Environmental sciences is a major strength for MSU, and the institute, when established, will bring together faculty and students from across campus to study issues of regional concern -- climate change, water, ecosystem dynamics, and sustainability. Cross said he hopes to extend his research and collaborate with others to include streams in the northern Rockies that are highly vulnerable to future warming.

Iceland is possibly the most geothermally active country in the world, Cross said. An island just south of the Arctic Circle and east of Greenland, Iceland sits over two continental plates that are slowly drifting apart. Hot pools are everywhere, and volcanic activity is common. The country drew widespread attention last spring when a glacier-covered volcano erupted and spewed ash across Scandinavia and western Europe.

"Much of the Earth is getting warmer and more climatically variable, especially at northern latitudes," Cross continued. "Understanding the response of streams to warming is important because these responses will largely determine what will happen to the valuable ecosystem services provided by streams and rivers that we use every day and often take for granted."

Some of those services include purifying water, detoxifying waste and recycling nutrients, Cross said.

Cross's team started its fieldwork this summer, a time when daylight lasts 20 hours a day and temperatures reach the low 60s. The researchers are collecting preliminary data from the Hengill area, which is about a 30-minute drive from the capital city of Reykjavik.

Scientists have shown that water temperatures vary widely from stream to stream in their study area, Cross said. One stream, for example, is 46 F, while a stream a few feet away is almost 30 degrees warmer.

Cross's team plans to take advantage of this natural temperature gradient to understand how warming affects "food webs," or communities of organisms that live in the streams, as well as key ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling and stream metabolism (the production and consumption of oxygen).

The researchers are also interested to see what happens when they experimentally add slightly warmer water to these streams, Cross said. They are currently gearing up for a three-year temperature manipulation of a whole stream ecosystem.

"The beauty of this natural laboratory is that there are streams with strongly contrasting temperatures just a few meters apart," Cross said.

To warm the stream, the researchers plan to pipe water from a cold stream over to a warm stream. The warm stream will hold a large container that constantly fills and drains with warm water. The cold water will flow through a coiled pipe that sits in the container. When the cold water warms up nine degrees Fahrenheit, it will be piped back to the cold stream.

"Because temperature is the fundamental driver of nearly all biological processes, climate warming is likely to have significant impacts on the structure and function of freshwater ecosystems," Cross said.

Cross's team from MSU will include at least two doctoral students, one master's degree student and a postdoctoral researcher. Other collaborators are at the University of Alabama, the University of Iceland in Reykjavik and the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries in Reykjavik.

The postdoctoral researcher from MSU will live in Iceland year-round, Cross said. Cross and his MSU graduate students will travel periodically to Iceland, probably totaling two months a year there.

One of those graduate students -- Jim Junker, in ecology -- said he will start working in Iceland this fall after finishing his master's degree requirements at MSU. Although his master's degree focuses on willow trees in Yellowstone National Park, he expects to see some overlap with his doctoral work in Iceland.

"I will be using many of the tools from my Yellowstone work, but the context of the questions will be different," Junker said. "My master's work has been very helpful for me to develop a base of knowledge and a mind set for the questions of interest on the Iceland project."

Cross said Iceland is similar to Yellowstone National Park in that both are hot spots for geothermal activity. Yellowstone is different, however, because most of the water that gushes from its geysers contains dissolved chemicals that change the chemistry of the streams. The water chemistry in Yellowstone streams -- unlike the water chemistry in Iceland - varies widely between streams and within streams.

Junker said he is excited about working in Iceland. The adventures he expects include learning a new language, living near volcanoes, being surrounded by a new culture and experiencing 20 hours of daylight ("which doesn't worry me a much as 20 hours of night," he said). The research, itself, is enticing.

"The possibilities and questions to be answered are all very interesting, as well as topical and relevant," Junker said. "I am excited about the seemingly limitless amount of work that can be done and am very intrigued by where the project will be in a few years.

"The opportunity to do awesome science in such a mystical and amazing location doesn't come around every day," Junker said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or