As a trained oceanographer and climate scientist, Idaho State University professor Bruce Finney is no stranger to traveling for his work.

Whether he is working his way across the small volcanic archipelago of the Kuril Islands that trail from Japan’s island Hokkaido to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, visiting the many lakes of Africa, or trekking along the Alaskan terrain, Minnesotan-born Finney has traveled to many countries to study Earth’s sediment cores in order to learn more about the history of the oceans and lakes.

And while Idaho isn’t exactly known as the land of 10,000 lakes like Minnesota is, it still features many insightful gems, allowing Finney to research more on what he considers one of the main focuses of his career — connections between climate and organisms in the Pacific Rim.

“One of the things about my job that I feel fortunate about is that I get to go to a lot of cool, remote beautiful places to do research,” said Finney, who now teaches biological sciences and geosciences on ISU’s campus. “So I feel lucky that I’ve had that opportunity.”

Finney has also worked intensively on understanding how climate change is affecting the western landscape and salmon runs. The research has significant ramifications for agriculture — including possible regulations that may be on the horizon to protect endangered species, an outlook of water supplies and a glimpse of how growing zones may change.

{br class=”Apple-interchange-newline” /}Based on his knowledge and research about climate change, Finney met with staff members of U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both R-Idaho, in October regarding climate change in Idaho and how it will affect the state in the years to come.

“One of the concerns about climate change in Idaho is that while we’re getting warmer, we’ll get more rain and less snow,” he explained. “That’s going to affect things like agriculture and how the reservoirs fill up and obviously where the good ski areas are. Water resources are a big deal because it’s so dry in southeast Idaho so there’s a concern about how that’s going to change in the future.

Finney explained that the many layers of lakes and oceans provide scientists with information that they can study to learn more about different timespans of the Earth. While these layers stretch back thousands to millions of years, Finney’s research focuses on the last 10,000 or 20,000 years.

“It’s the period from the last ice age up until present,” he said. “So that gives a nice perspective on how things have changed and how climate change has naturally occurred and into the era where humans now are impacting things.”

Since he was young, Finney said he always knew he wanted to study lakes, but the ocean had a strong pull on his interests due to the broad potential it offered. Because of this he splits his attentions roughly fifty-fifty, directing half of his focus towards the ocean and the other half towards lakes.

This desire to study bodies of water led him to get a bachelor of science in geology at the University of Minnesota in 1976, followed by a Ph.D. in oceanography at Oregon State University in 1987.

“I then briefly did a post-doctorate at Duke University and during that I got to work in Africa for a couple of years in the big lakes of the Rift Valley, and then when I moved to Alaska I focused on the Pacific area,” he explained.

He held a faculty position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for 16 years before coming to Idaho State University in 2007.

One of the themes of his research is studying how climate change affects the ecosystems around the Pacific Rim, and on a smaller scale the region of southern Idaho.

“My research has been motivated by the growing awareness of the important connections between the climate state of the Pacific region, and the environmental and ecosystem conditions across widespread geographic areas,” he said.

He explained that when the climate shifts between different states, such as El Niño and La Niña events when the weather takes on different characteristics than it usually does, patterns emerge in regional climates and animal populations.

From these patterns, he’s able to collect fragments of information that will help scientists understand natural processes and how these processes have changed and will change the land and its populations.

“During some periods for example, snowpack and stream flow decrease in Idaho but increase in Alaska, and the abundance of salmon decreases in the Pacific Northwest while it increases in Alaska and Japan,” he explained. “These are but some examples of the spatial and temporal patterns that can be explained in the context of a broad climatic framework.”

One of his crowning moments so far while working as an oceanographer involves one of Idaho’s iconic animals: salmon.

“I developed this method to reconstruct salmon runs from sediments in lakes where salmon come back to spawn … and that’s been a really rewarding thing,” he said. “It was one of those lightbulb moments that you have as a scientist when you have what you think is an important new idea and then you get to collect samples and see if there is any validity to it.”

This method involves measuring a special type of nitrogen that salmon pick up when they’re out in the ocean and bring back to the lakes and rivers. These salmon that return to spawn die, and their decomposing bodies release that special type of nitrogen which is then taken up by algae and then deposited into sediments of the lake.

Finney then takes cores from lakes to study the different layers in the mud of these lakes to measure that special type of nitrogen.

“Basically, you can read back in time,” he said. “So I’ve done that in a bunch of places in Alaska, and I’ve been working on a project at Redfish Lake…which is a beautiful place and it’s a place where the salmon have probably one of the most impressive migrations. You’ve got to tip your hat to them … because they travel 900 miles and climb an elevation of 6,500 feet to get there.”

From this research of studying this nitrogen, Finney said they were able to learn more about the previous salmon population numbers.

However, due to the installation of dams such as the Sunbeam Dam in 1910, Finney said this has caused the salmon population to decline in the upper Snake River, to the point that they are now on the endangered species list in the state of Idaho.

“People are working really hard on trying to restore these systems,” he said. “So our work, done as part of graduate student Rachel Brinkley’s masters thesis research, showed how many fish returned prior to all these dams and helped show what a restored system could be.”

Finney explained his discovery of how one can study the nitrogen left from salmon deposits is one of the highlights of his career since it allows scientists to look back in time to see how salmon populations have changed over thousands of years.

“Salmon are such a cool fish because they are a keystone species that are so important culturally and to a lot of different organisms,” he said. “And so it’s something that you work on that people can relate to and that they can understand and appreciate.”

The story of his discovery illustrates how researchers develop and pursue new scientific fields.

“It was like I said … I had this hunch ... people knew about the salmon nitrogen idea, but they never used it in sediments to learn about the past,” he explained. “They used it to study how different fish and bears and birds used the salmon as part of their food and things like that. But that lightbulb moment was like, oh, the algae will take that nitrogen up and then it’s going to be deposited into the bottom (of the lake). Because my whole training was about taking cores and making up stories from the different layers in the mud, I saw the potential to learn about the past.”

The search for validating his ideas about the nitrogen didn’t happen overnight, however. Finney explained that during his early career it was difficult to get funding until he had enough data to show his hunch had merit.

“I had to talk people into giving me, you know, enough money to buy a plane ticket to fly to a place where I thought it would work,” he explained. “I’d talked somebody into taking me out on a boat when they were doing some other things and I was just trying to…develop the data to show that it was a good idea.”

Then came the day that Finney managed to publish his research findings in one of the world’s top academic journals, Science Magazine. From that, his research took off, and today his publications have been cited over 11,000 times.

Currently, Finney teaches upper-level biology and runs his sediment core lab on the Idaho State University’s campus, which he explains has a large walk-in cold room similar to what restaurants have to keep their produce chilled. Within this lab are cores and samples he’s collected from all over the world for his research.

“I call it my nerd library,” he explained.

For the university, he also directs the Stable Isotope Laboratory, which performs analyses, including those for the special type of nitrogen, on a mass spectrometer. This laboratory assists students and faculty with their own research and studies.

“It’s a really versatile instrument that’s used in a lot of different fields in environmental science,” he explained. “I use it in teaching as well. I teach a graduate class and all of the students do their own research project where they get to run some samples and become familiar with how that data can help them with their research.”

While Finney is working on his Redfish Lake project, he has another project that he’s set his eyes on that involves trying to understand how climate change and changes in the atmosphere alters the vegetation in Idaho.

Using satellite images from over the past few decades and using herbarium samples from the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Finney will be studying how vegetation in the region has changed. He completed a similar study in Montana, which is experiencing “greening,” which means the amount of plant matter on the land has increased.

While the discovery that plants are absorbing increased amounts of carbon from the atmosphere sounds beneficial at first in efforts to bring down pollution, Finney explained that this isn’t exactly a thing to be celebrated.

“We kind of scratched our heads at that for a minute,” explained Finney, who worked on this study with researchers at the Montana State University. “The plants are getting greener but the plants are getting less nutritious. They’re putting out more carbon, but they’re not putting out as much nitrogen and nitrogen is really important in plants because … all animals need nitrogen because that’s what proteins and things are made out of. So the plants are becoming less nutritious over time. It’s a complicated story … but there’s definitely changes that are happening because of what we’re doing to the atmosphere.”

Finney, who represented the American Geophysical Union, said that he and the staff members spoke about legislative resolutions that would be good for the environment of Idaho as well as the state’s economy, one of which included shifting focus to geothermal energy.

Because of his location in Southeast Idaho and the instruments and tools that ISU offers, Finney said he’s been able to further his research and educate students interested in environmental sciences.

His colleague Ben Crosby, who is a professor and department chair of geosciences at ISU, explained that students of Finney are able to work on their own projects and complete them all within a single semester.

“Dr. Finney is a valued and committed member of our department, teaching courses that offer our students hands-on laboratory experiences,” Crosby said. “In the course of a semester, they learn the foundations of a technique, design a project, collect samples, analyze them and present their findings.”

“We provide a lot of research opportunities for students from freshman all the way up to graduate students and none of that could happen if ISU wasn’t supporting the researchers and our mission and the way we educate people,” Finney said. “I think it’s a real strength that ISU has.

“There’s a lot of people that are doing really interesting things and you know, I think it really helps our education. We can provide research learning opportunities to students at all different levels because having active researchers here, helps put real examples and active ongoing activities into the curriculum.”

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