Courtney Wigdahl

Courtney WigdahlCourtney Wigdahl began studying limnology with Jasmine Saros as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. Now, a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Environmental Science and still working with Saros, Wigdahl combines her background in biology and ecology with the resources of the Climate Change Institute. Wigdahl studies salinity variation in salt lakes in the Great Plains via lake sediment records, focusing on a special type of algae called diatoms. That diatoms are especially sensitive to changes in water quality and other climate variables makes them a prime indicator used by paleolimnologists in reconstructing climate records. But reconstruction alone often poses more new questions than it answers, and Wigdahl plans to investigate the contradictions evident in diatom-reconstructed salinity records.

This summer Wigdahl will travel to North Dakota to collect lake cores, which will be supplemented by experiments in Saros’ lab in Orono. Eventually, Wigdahl will use the ecological interactions among zooplankton, vegetation, and algae to assist in interpreting diatom-inferred salinity, and ultimately her findings will contribute to climate change data for the region.

The existing instrumental climate record for the Great Plains, the ‘bread basket’ of the country, extends only to the past fifty to one hundred years. Drought patterns in this region, including the devastation of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, have profound economical implications for region and the country.

Wighalh’s affiliation with both the School of Biology and Ecology and the Climate Change Institute enables her emerging work that blends paleolimnology with modern ecology. In this approach, Wigdahl benefits from field and experimental data, and can test hypotheses of one dataset against the other. The combination of both offers a more complete ecological picture. In addition to her work in Great Plains precipitation patterns, Wigdahl will travel to Chile next year with colleagues in the Climate Change Institute to assist in South American lake core analysis.

Wigdahl began at the University of Maine in 2007. After the completion of her dissertation, Wigdahl plans to continue salt lake research and hopes to start engaging undergrads in fieldwork and research.