Above: Image © porpeller, iStock

Like a library, lake mud archives environmental information. By studying lake mud, scientists can go back in time to a lake’s natural state. Doing so helps them understand how human activity and environmental change have impacted the lake over time. This field of study is called paleolimnology.

Tracking local and regional disturbances

Over time, natural systems can change because of local and regional disturbances. Local disturbances include:

  • Land use—like building farms or cities.
  • Habitat destruction—like cutting down forests for mining operations.
  • Pollutant emissions—like gases from factories.

These local disturbances affect nearby land, water, and air. Regional disturbances are things that affect larger areas, like climate change.

Many of these disturbances happen over long periods. For example, to study the impact of climate change on a lake, scientists often need data spanning decades. But it takes a lot of money, technology and resources to gather data over that much time. Many ecosystems just aren’t monitored for long enough, or they haven’t been monitored at all. In these cases, scientists can use paleolimnological studies instead.

Did you know? “Paleolimnology” literally means “the study of old lakes”. In Greek, paleo means ”old”, limne means ”lake” and logy means ”study of”.


Lakes are often located at lower elevations within their watersheds. So they collect a lot of debris, like vegetation, soil and pollutants.

Imagine lying at the bottom of a lake, looking up at the surface. As you stare up, particles flutter down and get deposited on you. There are all kinds of particles: soil, plants, algae and even fish feces. If you lie there long enough, you would eventually be completely buried!

These particles are called sediment. Sedimentation occurs constantly in lakes. It can continue for decades, or even millennia.

And thanks to sedimentation, lakes actually gather information on past ecosystems. The debris helps scientists understand the condition of the lake and the surrounding watershed at the time it was deposited.

Useful debris

Types of debris that scientists can use to monitor change are called paleolimnological proxies. Researchers often use preserved insects, pollen, algae and other aquatic organisms they find in the sediment. For example, diatoms are a type of algae that is often used as a proxy.

Each diatom is encapsulated (surrounded) by a layer of silica called a frustule. Frustules don’t decompose easily, so they’re often well-preserved in sediment. If scientists see changes in the types of frustules, it means different species have lived in the lake over time. This usually means that the environmental conditions have changed, too.

Did you know? The oldest recorded diatom dates back to the Jurassic Period. That’s over 200 million years ago!

Understanding the past and planning for the future

Paleolimnological studies help scientists answer important questions. For instance, scientists have used information from these studies to prove that northern and tropical lakes have warmed over time.

A lake’s ecological history can also help scientists predict how it will respond to future disturbances. This information can then be used to make better decisions about how to build cities, develop industry and adapt to climate change."

Learn more!

About paleolimnology:

Lakes as sentinels of climate change (2009)
R. Adrian et al., Limnology and Oceanography 54

Lake of the Woods Paleolimnological Project
The Lake of the Woods Paleolimnology group, Queen’s University

About diatoms:

What are diatoms?
S. Spaulding et al., University of Colorado

M.I.R.A.C.L.E., University of College London

Jared Wolfe

I am currently completing my Masters of Science at the University of Regina. My interests focus on biology which has led me to explore many different areas of research during my academic career. I have worked in numerous labs, studying neurophysiology, ecotoxicology, and freshwater ecology. My present research investigates how human development affects the integrity of aquatic systems. Humans play a very important role in ecology, and my passion is improving our understanding of this relationship. I chose to volunteer for Let’s Talk Science because outreach is an important responsibility of scientists, and that creating links between the public and research can be a fun and fulfilling pursuit. In my downtime, I enjoy spending time outdoors and cooking.

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