20: A History of Paleolimnology (Part 2: There and Back Again)

“All have their worth and each contributes to the worth of the others” – John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

The second episode of our History of Paleolimnology begins at the start of the 20th century (where we ended Part 1), after the pioneers of modern biology, physics, chemistry, and geology had developed the tools and concepts that early paleolimnologists would use to study the many environmental indicators preserved in lake sediments. It is interesting how few of those pioneers were professional scientists. Instead they were members of the nobility, clergy, and business communities whose scientific pursuits were largely driven by passion (for example, Leeuwenhoek’s initial interest in lenses was driven by his work as a draper). However, by the late-1800s, this work had been taken up by university professors (performing their fieldwork in three-piece suits).

Fieldwork apparel of the early 20th century
Unfortunately, I don’t own any suits appropriate for field sampling…

The first true paleolimnologists wouldn’t have described themselves that way. They were geologists, biologists, and ecologists using sediment processes to investigate whether elements of lake history were preserved in lake sediments.

The Hutchinson Tree
The famous Hutchinson Tree showing his impressive legacy as a scientific mentor

We have previously discussed how cores are collected, and as the sophistication of paleolimnological analyses increased, so did the equipment used to retrieve undisturbed sediment sequences. The progression from simple steel pipes hammered into the sediment to the modern tools used today is also due to the labour and ingenuity of many talented individuals.

Once it was possible to carefully retrieve sediment cores from a lake bottom and interpret the preserved environmental indicators, one major development was still missing before paleolimnology would transform into the applied discipline we know today – the ability to reliably associate a date with a specific sediment interval. But that is something to explore next time.

Episode 20 can be found here.