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Researchers Study How Climate Change Affects Flathead Lake

Flathead Lake Biological Station research boat, Jessie-B.
Courtesy Flathead Lake Biological Station
Flathead Lake Biological Station research boat, Jessie-B.

Researchers at the Flathead Lake Biological Station are studying how climate change may affect the lake’s chemistry and temperature. Corin Cates-Carney reports from a research presentation at the station Thursday night.

The bullet point is Flathead Lake is an extremely complex body of water; and it’s changing."Climate change has a pretty big impact on temperatures in this area and over the next 100 years, air temperatures are set to increase anywhere between 4 and 6 degrees. So that is on average. So that is quite a rise over the course of the century."

That’s Dr. Shawn Devlin. Along with his super sophisticated computer model, and 35 years of data collected by researchers at the biological station, he is working to understand what climate change means for the entire lake ecosystem.

What will it mean if the surface temperatures rise and the fish move to lower, cooler, water?

What happens if the lake receives more nutrients and turns green, removing the glassy clarity from the lake water?

Devlin also wants to know what would happen if an invasive species, like zebra mussels, were introduced into lake?

He hopes his data will guide future discussions on stewardship of the Flathead Lake, because we can’t talk about what we don’t know, and his data tell us a lot.

"The biggest reason that we want to keep Flathead lake monitoring going is because, if there is an issue, we can determine it quickly. If we see a change in phytoplankton that is drastic we can say what is going on nearly immediately."

Devlin says to understand a climate or a complex ecosystem, scientists need to gather data over a long period of time. And that’s what he hopes to do as a lake ecologist at the station.

Devlin joined the Flathead Lake research team in 2014 as a post-doctoral student. He wants to study the lake for the rest his career, but money may be an issue. Funding for his work comes from the state and private donors, but right now there's only enough for another year.

Devlin says prevention is key in protecting an environment like the Flathead, because once it changes, its much harder to change back.

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