University of Saskatchewan

September 20, 2014   

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

U of S PhD student Robin Smith spent the summer digging up an ancient lake bed to find fossils of leaves and insects to better understand climate change. [Photo courtesy of Liam Richards]
October 23, 2006

Written in stone: U of S students explore climate change
October 26, 2006
Eleventh in a Series
For The Star-Phoenix

By Charles Hamilton

Fifty million years ago, Earth had no polar ice caps, large areas of the Arctic were covered by lush deciduous forests, and the arctic tundra had not yet evolved.

To gain insight into this crucial time period in Earth’s evolution, Robin Smith, a University of Saskatchewan PhD student, spent her summer digging up an ancient lake bed near Falkland, British Columbia.

Leaves and insects preserved in the ancient lake basin paint a picture of a warm, greenhouse-like world. By collecting, cataloging and comparing the evolution of these fossils to their modern counterparts, Smith hopes to better understand current climate change and its effect on life.

“By looking at the ways ancient plants responded to increasingly warm climates in the past, hopefully I will be able to understand how our modern plant life might adapt to global warming,” she says.

Getting the fossils out of the site was no easy task. The lake bed is sandwiched between lava flow and volcanic deposit, with large mountainous terrain on either side. The only access to the site is an old logging road buried deep in the British Columbia forest. From there, it is a 30-minute hike to the site up a forested slope and across steep gullies.

“We didn’t have to have rock climbing gear or anything like that,” Smith says. “But it was still good exercise.”

Smith and the team lugged 210 kilograms worth of rock and fossil samples out of the deep brush by foot.

She will spend the coming months in the lab with her colleagues, wading through the wealth of collected field materials.

The team includes U of S geology undergraduate Robin Wilson and Smith’s two supervisors, U of S geology professor Jim Basinger and adjunct professor David Greenwood of Brandon University.

“It’s one thing listening to someone talk about research and field work in the classroom,” says Wilson. “But actually doing it and seeing how it works was definitely a different experience.”

Environment Canada says that over the past 100 years, the planet’s temperature has risen 0.5 C. While most climatologists attribute this change to human activity, others maintain that it’s the result of natural processes.

Regardless of the causes, Smith says it is important to understand the changing climate over the long term.

“You need to see the cycles and changes that the Earth has undergone prior to human influence in order to better understand the impact we are having on the environment,” she says.

Smith does not have a background in paleontology. She did both her undergraduate and master’s degrees in anthropology and environmental studies, studying primarily the relationship between humans and plants. She then became interested in plant evolution, and moved into environmental geology.

This year, Smith was awarded the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s prestigious Canada Graduate Scholarship – a three-year PHD scholarship worth more than $105,000.

“Robin is a brilliant student,” says Basinger. “Her lack of background in [natural] science could have been perceived as a weakness by some, but can also be a potential strength, as she brings with her a fresh perspective.”

And it is that fresh perspective that Smith hopes to bring to the issue of climate change.

“I have looked at climate and environmental change from more of a social science perspective in some of my previous work, so I am approaching this topic with that background in mind,” says Smith. “Hopefully by better understanding the human-induced aspects of climate change, we can inform public policy and raise general public awareness about it.”

Charles Hamilton is a student intern in the U of S Office of Research Communications.

(This article is part of a partnership initiative between The StarPhoenix and University of Saskatchewan Research Communications Office to highlight the work of student researchers and showcase the efforts of student writers and photographers.)

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