Climate Change Research: Studying the North Atlantic Oscillation

May 16th, 2011 by June

By Lisa Doner

The Center for the Environment makes its debut in climate change research with a $612,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study decadal cyclicity in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) proxies from northwest Iceland lake sediments. The project includes 3 summers of field work in Iceland, analyses of approximately one thousand sediment and water samples, and acquisition of three pieces of major equipment: a laser particle-size analyzer, a freeze-drier, and a turbidity-triggered, automated water sampler. Student research is also a part of this project.

The NAO is a distinct pattern of sea level pressures within the North Atlantic region that is often associated with changes in intensity of jet stream winds and storminess from North America to western Europe, drought versus wet conditions in the southeast US and the Middle East, and snow accumulations in New England. By using geological and geochemical attributes preserved in lake sediments for thousands of years, this project will help to determine if the NAO is also responsible for creating a chemical pattern that appears in some Icelandic lake sediments every 100 years or so,  since AD 800. The project has two primary goals: to determine if these geochemical cycles can be used as a proxy for past NAO conditions and, thus, to extend the record of NAO variability to a period before human settlement; and to determine if settlement by Vikings, in AD 890, amplified the impact of the past climate changes on the land.

The project involves a team of people including CFE’s hydrologist Mark Green and PSU students. Mark will examine how hydrologic changes affect chemical patterns in the Icelandic watersheds. Mark Serreze, Director of the National Snow & Ice Data Center, at the U. Colorado – Boulder, will model past and present NAO conditions for Iceland. Bradford Hubeny, a geologist at Salem State University, is researching the layering and chronology of  sediment deposition in each of the lakes and Ann Dieffenbacher-Krall, from U. Maine-Orono Climate Change Institute, will use assemblages of aquatic insects, called chironomids (midges), to determine if there are also biological responses to the 100-year climate cycles. We will soon be traveling to Iceland to spend some time in the field. Much of this time will be dedicated to collecting water and sediment samples that will be transported back to PSU for analysis.

Student research

Student research is a key component of the Iceland work. In addition, undergraduate students prepare samples and measure particle–size and carbon content in PSU’s Sedimentology Laboratory. Student research projects that have grown out of this project in 2011, include those by:

Christina Maki, MS in Environmental Science & Policy student, will be monitoring results from stream flow, groundwater chemistry and geochemical fluxes associated with snowmelt and rainfall events at Vatnsdalsvatn, to track chemical pathways through the lake’s watershed.


Ben Bolaski, a senior Environmental Science & Policy major, is creating a GIS source-area map and statistically derived source-area probabilities based on the chemical composition of sediment samples he collects from the Vatnsdalsvatn watershed and through modifications of the program SEDUNMIX.

Chris Myers, a senior Environmental Science & Policy major, is using magnetic characteristics of soil and lake samples from Iceland to determine if the chemical cycles are associated with erosion of relatively old or new soils, and if atmospheric contributions, such as from volcanic ash, are a significant factor.

Contact Us

Contact Us

January 9th, 2013 by Michael

Center for the Environment

Plymouth State University
Samuel Read Hall Building, 2nd Floor
MSC #63, 17 High Street
Plymouth, NH 03264

phone (603) 535-3179
fax (603) 535-3004