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Diatoms Help Explain a Changing Climate

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation has mobilized their athletes in the pursuit of new discoveries, new data, and even new species in the high mountain wildernesses of the Northwest. Dr. Loren Bahls curates the Montana Diatom Collection and is utilizing ASC volunteers ranging from serious trekkers to casual day hikers in his pursuit of information on these important single-celled organisms. Diatoms, which are located in nearly every aquatic environment imaginable, are photosynthetic microbes possessing cell walls made of silica dioxide (glass). Information about diatoms is extremely useful to scientists attempting to glean information on environmental conditions on global as well as local levels.
Diatoms occupy an important place at the base of aquatic food chains. They are fundamental to the ecosystems that they inhabit, and their numbers and diversity can tell researchers much about the water quality and ecology in those ecosystems. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation has matched Dr. Bahls with volunteers who are traveling to remote areas and collecting water samples for his analysis. The process is simple and the equipment is small, light, and easy to use. Participants only need to spend a few minutes collecting samples and data which often yield exciting results. The study aims to cover as many alpine areas across the northwestern United States as possible, so this is an opportunity not only for serious adventurers, but also for the average hiker who wishes to benefit the area in which he/she is exploring.

Developing our understanding of fragile ecosystems, discovering organisms previously unknown to science, and qualifying the water quality of our country’s most pristine places – these are all great reasons to marry science with adventure and turn recreation into research. However, the data gathered by our citizen scientists can be used in efforts that are greater still. Diatoms account for roughly 40% of oxygen production and carbon fixation globally. As a part of this essential cycle, they have a great deal to tell us about climate change and the condition of the planet in general. Of the 200,000 species of diatoms thought to exist, roughly 12% have been discovered. That leaves a large gap in our knowledge of organisms that are major indicators of global environmental conditions.

The Montana Diatom Collection (located in Helena) houses species from across the northwestern U.S., and Dr. Bahls estimates that at least one third of the diatom species in this area remain to be identified. He is enthusiastic about the Northwest because its extensive and unspoiled wilderness regions have yet to be sampled extensively. Dr. Bahls and ASC volunteers have already discovered a species that was not known to exist in the U.S., some that may be new to science, and a number of very rare diatoms. Dr. Bahls will study these specimens through the winter while adventurers continue to sample remote aquatic environments from northern California to western North Dakota.

If you know that you’ll be traveling through an alpine area and you’re looking to get involved, this is an easy and gratifying way to join our coalition of citizen scientists. For more information on how to help, check out http://www.adventureandscience.org/diatom-lake.html and then contact us here: http://www.adventureandscience.org/find-an-advisor.html.

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