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Predicting the Future
From the Bottom of a Lake

Water Management is an Unavoidable Priority

January 11, 2007 :: No. 109

It is undisputed that Southern California survives in its current state for one reason: Water.

Without enough water, the economy, the population, the agriculture could not be maintained at this level. That makes water management an unavoidable priority.
But something can’t be managed if how much of it there is to manage isn’t known. That’s why Cal State Fullerton’s Matthew Kirby, assistant professor of geological sciences, is digging into the bottom of Lake Elsinore, with the help of a $39,950 grant from the National Science Foundation.

He’s the lead researcher for “Assessing Multi-Scale Holocene Climate Variability in Western North America Using Sediments from Lake Elsinore (Southern California).”

Translated for non-scientists, the long title of the research project means he is using a drilling barge to take core samples from the bottom of the lake, the oldest natural non-playa lake in Southern California. A playa lake is one that dries up in the hot season; Lake Elsinore doesn’t.

The core samples will show him and the scientists he works with how much water has flowed into the lake — visible from Interstate 15 just south of state Route 74 — since the last ice age. The 10,000-year geologic period since the last ice age until now is known as the Holocene.

Layers of sediment are washed into the lake by annual precipitation, bringing mineral and organic material with it, layer-by-layer, like pages in a book telling a story about rain cycles, changes in the influence of the ocean on the other side of the mountains bordering Lake Elsinore, and even seismic movement.
“We want to reconstruct the Holocene hydrologic, that is, the record of precipitation and drought, in Southern California,” Kirby said. “A better understanding of what the natural baseline is in our region will help us understand what to expect and, therefore, what to plan for.”

Kirby and his colleagues — Steve Lund of USC and Michael Anderson from UC Riverside — want to go even further. They plan, ultimately, to drill at least 500 meters down into the ancient Lake Elsinore lakebed, or “several hundred thousand years, which will include multiple interglacial cycles,” and he wants to continue research on abrupt climate change in Southern California, as recorded in sediments in Baldwin Lake, another target of his research.

Kirby said he and research colleagues are planning their grant requests now.
He is also looking at humans’ effect on the level of Lake Elsinore, and he is conducting similar research at other lakes in Southern California, including Big Laguna Lake, Hog Lake, Dry Lake and Crystal Lake.

Also participating in the research at various points were: Chirstopher J. Poulsen, now an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, who was the climate modeler on the project; Roger Byrne, an associate professor at UC Berkeley and a pollen and climate expert; Liam Reidy, also a climate and pollen expert and now a doctoral student at UC Berkeley; Fullerton student Jenny Arkle, a lab assistant who graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in geography and is now pursuing a degree in geology; and Fullerton student Jenn Schmidt, who was also a lab assistant on the project and is a senior geology major.
A Buena Park resident, Kirby joined the CSUF faculty in 2002 and earned his Ph.D. from Syracuse University.

Photos: Available at

Media Contacts:

Matthew Kirby, Geological Sciences, 657-278-2158 or

Russ L.  Hudson, Public Affairs, 657-278-4007 or

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