The Diatom Lake Adventure: Ice ages, hotel titrations, and the Midwest

Editor’s note: Rising Wooster senior Richard Torres (’23) had a spectacular opportunity this summer (May 31 – June 12, 2022) to participate in a National Science Foundation-funded research trip with Dr. Tom Lowell (on the right) and his team from the University of Cincinnati. Below is Richard’s account. Unless otherwise noted, all the images are from his phone. (Above photo by Aaron Diefendorf.)

Why am I here? Out in the choppy waves of a lake in the middle of Minnesota hunting diatoms. It is all part of an expedition going to 20 different lakes in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin to see how different conditions effect diatoms. It was quite the adventure not getting to explore much of the Midwest, barely getting out of Wooster. But with funding from the National Science Foundation, me, Tom Lowell (Professor at the University of Cincinnati), Aaron Diefendorf (Professor at the University of Cincinnati), Meg Corcoran (PhD student at the University of Cincinnati), and Watts Dietrich (Masters student at the University of Cincinnati) went off to core, probe, sample, and take many more tests and observations of the lakes of the Midwest.

Diatoms are single-celled aquatic plants that make their cell walls out of glass, once they die, they fall to the bottom of the lake and because of their siliceous shell (called a frustule) they preserve well and can be found going back in time through the lake core sediments. At each lake we took a core, some went deep, and some only went down a few centimeters. The diatoms and their traces will then be examined in the lab once we get back.

And this is Rover the ROV (remotely operated vehicle), he would help us look at the lake bottom and collect samples of plants with that claw, or at least that was the plan, we seemed to have more luck pulling samples out of the propeller. We sent Rover down to get a stick from a sunken tree and after giving up trying to wrestle one out and coming back to the surface we found a stick lodged in a propeller, which we lovingly named Mr. Stick.

Because we were going to run out of alkalinity bottles (bottles of lake water to be tested for its alkalinity) before we ran out of lakes, we had to run a series of titrations to reveal the alkalinity of the samples to free up some more bottles for later. We brought all the chemistry equipment into Watts and I’s room making sure to close the curtains (who knows what people would think we are doing) and got to work.

Traveling around the Dakotas we were stunned by the amount water levels have risen. Seeing flooded fields and roads, grain silos and farmhouses crumbling into lakes. Homes once built on hills atop a field struggling to get water during the dustbowl are now cut off on their own islands. Where google maps shows multiple lakes, we came to find one big lake encompassing areas. Above you can see how one of our sites, Devil’s lake, and its area changed from 120 square miles to 820 in just 20 years.

Then there was Lake Kylen. We plunged our truck and SUV deeper and deeper into the Wisconsin woods, off on dirt roads. We saw them, an uncountable, ungodly number of mosquitos swarming us and our vehicles. We took a rubber dingy and our equipment down a trail off the road, into the mud, then took turns going out into the lake. This was a short reprieve since there was not many mosquitoes or biting flies, it was almost peaceful out there with the swans, otters, and scenery except for the terror we knew awaited us on returning to shore. We trudged back to the car and awaited the truck, swatting all those monsters that wanted to hitch a ride with us. Finally safe at last. WRONG! The truck was stuck in mud and had to be pulled out, back to the blood donation center. We could still see them that night at the hotel, even when we closed our eyes.

After the traumatizing experience of the day before, we were prepared for the worst on our last day of lake scienceing. But when we got to the lakes, dragonflies were patrolling the skies, keeping us safe and eating anything that would want to take a bite of us. Dragonflies are my new best friends. They are so sweet letting me get close to take pictures and literally saving our skins. That night we then treated ourselves to a lakeside restaurant and I got to complete my goal of trying Wisconsin cheese curds, yes, they are as good as you would think.

So why did we have to travel all around the Midwest to collect diatoms? Well, we want to uncover past conditions through diatoms but first we need to find out how different changes in their environment affects them. The Cincinnati group is looking at a biomarker called HBI to reconstruct past hydrologies, and I am looking at how the different diatom species can be used to look for evidence of different climate events in history. This trip, with the data, experiences, and motivations, is essential to achieving the goals we have set out for looking at diatoms through time.

But above and beyond the best experience of the trip was being able to meet Tom Cruz at all the Applebee’s we went to.

Group photo (from left): Me, Aaron Diefendorf (Professor at the University of Cincinnati), Meg Corcoran (PhD student at the University of Cincinnati), Tom Lowell (Professor at the University of Cincinnati), and Watts Dietrich (Masters student at the University of Cincinnati).

About Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson is a Professor of Geology at The College of Wooster. He specializes in invertebrate paleontology, carbonate sedimentology, and stratigraphy. He also is an expert on pseudoscience, especially creationism.
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