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Keywords:

  • chrysophytes;
  • climate change;
  • diatoms;
  • environmental change;
  • fossils;
  • lakes;
  • paleolimnology;
  • paleoclimatology;
  • pigments;
  • sediments;
  • stomatocysts

Interest in climate change research has taken on new relevance with the realization that human activities, such as the accelerated release of the so-called greenhouse gases, may be altering the thermal properties of our atmosphere. Important social, economic, and scientific questions include the following. Is climate changing? If so, can these changes be related to human activities? Are episodes of extreme weather, such as droughts or hurricanes, increasing in frequency? Long-term meteorological data, on broad spatial and temporal scales, are needed to answer these questions. Unfortunately, such data were never gathered; therefore, indirect proxy methods must be used to infer past climatic trends. A relatively untapped source of paleoclimate data is based on hindcasting past climatic trends using the environmental optima and tolerances of algae (especially diatoms) preserved in lake sediment profiles. Paleophycologists have used two approaches. Although still controversial, attempts have been made to directly infer climatic variables, such as temperature, from past algal assemblages. The main assumption with these types of analyses is that species composition is either directly related to temperature or that algal assemblages are related to some variable linearly related to temperature. The second more commonly used approach is to infer a limnological variable (e.g. water chemistry, lake ice cover, etc.) that is related to climate. Although paleolimnological approaches are broadly similar across climatic regions, the environmental gradients that paleophycologists track can be very different. For example, climatic inferences in polar regions have focused on past lake ice conditions, whereas in lakes near arctic treeline ecotones, paleophycologists have developed methods to infer past lakewater-dissolved organic carbon, because this variable has been linked to the density of coniferous trees in a drainage basin. In closed-basin lakes in arid and semiarid regions, past lakewater salinity, which can be robustly reconstructed from fossil algal assemblages, is closely tied to the balance of evaporation and precipitation (i.e. drought frequency). Some recent examples of paleophycolgical work include the documentation of striking environmental changes in high arctic environments in the 19th century believed to be related to climate warming. Meanwhile, diatom-based reconstructions of salinity (e.g. the Great Plains of North America and Africa) have revealed prolonged periods of droughts over the last few millennia that have greatly exceeded those recorded during recent times. Marked climatic variability that is outside the range captured by the instrumental record has a strong bearing on sustainability of human societies. Only with a long-term perspective can we understand natural climatic variability and the potential influences of human activities on climate and thereby increase our ability to understand future climate.