Flathead Lake ecologist studies lakes in Antarctica

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  • Flathead Lake Biological Station ecologist Shawn Devlin dives in a lake in Antarctica as part of a six-week research project. (Courtesy photo)

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    A research base is set up in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica.

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    Shawn Devlin at one of his research sites in Antarctica.

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    Shawn Devlin at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The base is home to up to 1,000 people conducting scientific research.

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  • Flathead Lake Biological Station ecologist Shawn Devlin dives in a lake in Antarctica as part of a six-week research project. (Courtesy photo)

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    A research base is set up in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica.

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    Shawn Devlin at one of his research sites in Antarctica.

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    Shawn Devlin at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The base is home to up to 1,000 people conducting scientific research.

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As one of a handful of specialists in a largely unexplored field of lake ecology worldwide, a Flathead Lake Biological Station researcher got the chance to study one of the few places on earth colder than Montana for the scientific trip of a lifetime.

Benthic ecologist Shawn Devlin recently returned from a six-week research expedition to Antarctica, the continent of science. There, he and a team of researchers studied and sampled the unique lake ecology of a frozen lake centered in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, one of only two places on the continent not covered in ice.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research Project has conducted research and experiments and monitored changes in Antarctica since 1992 at McMurdo Station, a permanent U.S. base established in 1955 and run by a community of up to 1,000 people. The site is one of 40 total research bases erected by different countries on the continent.

As a benthic ecologist, Devlin has spent the last 12 years studying benthic zones of lakes, the areas closest to shore where algae and other microbial organisms grow and thrive. According to Devlin, about half of lakes’ life-supporting energy comes from the benthic zone, which has received a mere fraction of the scientific attention given to the pelagic, or open water, zones over the last several decades.

Devlin’s research has taken him around the world, from all over the U.S. to Finland to the bottom of the globe.

The McMurdo project reached out to Devlin as part of their grant renewal process that allowed for new recruits and found him to be a perfect fit for the direction the team wanted to take their research.

When asked to join, Devlin said he jumped at the opportunity to visit “the continent of science.” On Dec. 23, after several flights and a helicopter ride, Devlin found himself looking out over a seemingly endless expanse of ice.

Even in the summer, the extreme conditions of the Antarctic provide the optimal opportunity to study changes in climate and weather, variations in temperature and the amount of ice versus liquid water present over a period of several years.

The region of Devlin’s focus sits in a bowl of mountains that hold back the sheet ice and glaciers surrounding them to reveal a seemingly barren landscape of gravel and soil.

In the midst of what early explorers described as a barren wasteland, according to Devlin, lies Lake Fryxell, a permanently frozen lake nearly three miles long surrounded by a ring, or mote, of melt-water. It’s the purpose for Devlin’s visit.

Beneath the surface of Lake Fryxell’s mote, a surprising and exciting amount of life covers the floor of the lake, in stark contrast to the barren landscape above.

“You stick your head down and look in the motes and it’s just this garden of algae, just this amazing green and orange and pink sort of jungle of algae,” Devlin said. “Then you take your head up out of the water, and it’s just nothing. You can’t see a single thing alive, and then you stick your head in and it’s just these incredible handfuls of plant matter.”

Devlin was the 25th person to ever dive in Lake Fryxell. His job is to study and sample the lake as part of a long-term project that will allow he and his team to calculate the age and growth rate of the lake and the effects of the microbial underwater world on its surface surroundings.

Reaching the garden beneath the ice proved more challenging than he anticipated, however, and Devlin said he and his team often had to think on their feet.

“You can’t just run to Lowe’s,” he said. “It’s like we have 10 meters of rope and three PVC pipes. How are we going to do this?”

Previous studies indicate the lake is rising at a relatively steady pace of about 10 centimeters a year, allowing researchers to watch its growth over time.

Though Antarctica is not an applicable model for the affects of factors like climate change, Devlin said it does provide the perfect place to start.

“The thought is that it’s an extreme environment, so if things do start to change, it will happen in a very extreme way. Whether that’s reality or not, we’re not quite sure,” Devlin said.

“I wouldn’t extrapolate the things that we’re finding there to, say, Florida or to other places that are not Antarctica, but it’s sort of the first area that we’re going to see major changes,” he added.

Devlin plans to return to Antarctica each year for the next five years to continue his research on Lake Fryxell.

In the meantime, he works on lake modeling and monitoring for the largest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi River.

Alongside other scientists at the bio station, Devlin applies his knowledge of the benthic and literal zones to Flathead Lake in order to help determine the impact factors like invasive mussels would have locally.

In his three years working with the bio station, Devlin’s efforts have helped ensure the continuation of the Flathead Lake Monitoring Project, which has continuously collected data from the lake since 1977.

Without funding from Montana State University, Devlin relies on grants and self-funding to continue his work, but that, he said, keeps him motivated and busy.

His plans for the future include broadening his research on Flathead Lake as well as submitting new research proposals for his next trip south.

For more information about Devlin or the Flathead Lake Biological Station, visit https://flbs.umt.edu/.

Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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