Field Samples: Studying the World’s Oldest and Deepest Lake

 Welcome to our weekly Q&A asking researchers what they’ve been up to and what they’ve learned. Today, special guest, Stephanie Hampton, talks about working in Siberia on the world’s oldest and deepest lake. Hampton is the CFL’s fall Kaeser Scholar.
Lake Baikal in Siberia is the world's oldest, deepest and most biodiverse lake. Photo: Peter, Flickr Creative Commons
Lake Baikal in Siberia is the world’s oldest, deepest and most biodiverse lake. Photo: Peter, Flickr Creative Commons

Who are you, where are you from, and how did you get there?
 Hampton: I’m Stephanie Hampton – I’m a freshwater biologist, working at Washington State University. When I was at University of Kansas as an undergrad, I took an oceanography class. I loved it and asked the professor for more marine science classes. He reminded me that we were in Kansas (just a little landlocked) and… well, he suggested that I might try Limnology. Which I also loved, and followed my new–found interests in plankton and math over the years.
Pretend we just boarded an elevator and you only have a one-minute ride to tell me about your work, can you capture it a few sentences?
Hampton: I work with a bunch of wonderful Russian and American scientists on the world’s oldest and deepest lake – Lake Baikal in Siberia. It’s been a really cold place for millions of years, with more biodiversity than any other lake, and lots of the organisms have evolved to live well in the cold. We’re studying how they have responded over the past 60 years as this region of the world grows warmer, quickly.

While Lake Baikal has warmed significantly, that doesn't mean it's warm! Here, Stephanie Hampton prepares to snorkel in the 6 degree C water. Photo Courtesy: S. Hampton
While Lake Baikal has warmed significantly, that doesn’t mean it’s warm! Here, Stephanie Hampton prepares to snorkel in the 6 degree C water. Photo Courtesy: S. Hampton

What question did you ask and answer or do you hope to answer? What other questions might your work lead others to ask?
Hampton: We asked how much the lake has warmed with recent climate change, and whether the warming of the lake has affected the balance between endemic species (those adapted specially to Lake  Baikal) and the species that are found everywhere in the world – “cosmopolitan” species, we investigate why that balance might shift. Some big questions remain about how these species shifts might change the food web and the way that the nutrients move through the lake, especially when we think about other aspects of global change that may become more evident over time like changes in wind, melting permafrost in the watershed, or changes in precipitation.
Not to sound harsh, but why should someone NOT in the field of freshwater sciences care about your work? What’s a bigger picture implication?
Hampton: Lakes provide fish and water to people worldwide so understanding how warming affects processes leading to fish kills and harmful algal blooms is important for management and planning. In Lake Baikal, the question is especially significant because the lake has so much biodiversity that has adapted to the cold, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and treasured by Russians as a stunning example of the majesty of Siberian wilderness.
What do you love about your work? What do you love, well, not-so-much?
Hampton: Science is fundamentally a highly creative process, and I feel lucky to have a job doing creative work that consistently challenges my mind and my training. The difficult part of my job is that I too frequently allow my time to get  fragmented – it can be difficult to get into creative flow when I let my time get chopped into 15 minute intervals.
Can't read Russian? The shirts say "I Heart Plankton," and these researchers really do! Photo Courtesy: S. Hampton
Can’t read Russian? The shirts say “I Heart Plankton,” and these researchers really do! Photo Courtesy: S. Hampton

Tell me about one funny, memorable, exciting or awesome moment from this project (either in the field or in the lab).
Hampton: I don’t even know where to start. The Baikal project has had more belly laughs per unit effort than any other project in my career. Marianne Moore and I have had to pick ourselves up off the floor after falling down laughing too many times to count. And the awesomeness of Baikal stretches all the way past the horizon. One characteristically cool moment was when Marianne and Ted Ozersky went into the wrong office at Irkutsk State University, to find themselves facing a Siberian scientist at his desk and behind him was a wall full of Baikal seal skulls collected over many decades – when Marianne and Ted came home, they wrote a seed grant proposal to collaborate with this professor, to do biogeochemical analysis of the seal teeth, looking at how stable isotopes and metals may have changed over time. Random chance turns into cool science in Siberia –  expect the unexpected.
Where do you hope to go from here?
Hampton: We have become really interested in what’s happening under ice, and maybe brave enough to study it – it seems to be really important, and may be most critical to understand since  ice seasons are getting shorter … Clear ice helps promote massive algal blooms, productivity that is frequently higher than the summer productivity. What happens under the ice may have pretty strong impact throughout the year – I’d like to know more about that at Baikal, and at other lakes.

Stephanie Hampton will be giving the CFL Seminar today (Wed. November 12th and Noon. And a Biology Colloquium Thursday at 3:30pm.

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