A layered lake is a little like Earth’s early oceans − and lets researchers explore how oxygen built up in our atmosphere billions of years ago

Little Deming Lake doesn’t get much notice from visitors to Itasca State Park in Minnesota. There’s better boating on nearby Lake Itasca, the headwaters of the Mississippi River. My colleagues and I need to maneuver hundreds of pounds of equipment down a hidden path made narrow by late-summer poison ivy to launch our rowboats.

But modest Deming Lake offers more than meets the eye for me, a geochemist interested in how oxygen built up in the atmosphere 2.4 billion years ago. The absence of oxygen in the deep layers of Deming Lake is something this small body of water has in common with early Earth’s oceans.

On each of our several expeditions here each year, we row our boats out into the deepest part of the lake – over 60 feet (18 meters), despite the lake’s surface area being only 13 acres. We drop an anchor and connect our boats in a flotilla, readying ourselves for the work ahead.

Smooth lake with boats in the distance against woodsy shoreline

Researchers’ boats on Deming Lake.
Elizabeth Swanner, CC BY-ND

Deming Lake is meromictic, a term from Greek that means only partially mixing. In most lakes, at least once a year, the water at the top sinks while the water at the bottom rises because of wind and seasonal temperature changes that affect water’s density. But the deepest waters of Deming Lake never reach the surface. This prevents oxygen in its top layer of water from ever mixing into its deep layer.

Less than 1% of lakes are meromictic, and most that are have dense, salty bottom waters. Deming Lake’s deep waters are not very salty, but of the salts in its bottom waters, iron is one of the most abundant. This makes Deming Lake one of the rarest types of meromictic lakes.

man seated in small boat wearing gloves injecting water into a collection tube

Postdoc researcher Sajjad Akam collects a water sample for chemical analysis back in the lab.
Elizabeth Swanner, CC BY-ND

The lake surface is calm, and the still air is glorious on this cool, cloudless August morning. We lower a 2-foot-long water pump zip-tied to a cable attached to four sensors. The sensors measure the temperature, amount of oxygen, pH and amount of chlorophyll in the water at each layer we encounter. We pump water from the most intriguing layers up to the boat and fill a myriad of bottles and tubes, each destined for a different chemical or biological analysis.

My colleagues and I have homed in on Deming Lake to explore questions about how microbial life adapted to and changed the environmental conditions on early Earth. Our planet was inhabited only by microbes for most of its history. The atmosphere and the oceans’ depths didn’t have much oxygen, but they did have a lot of iron, just like Deming Lake does. By investigating what Deming Lake’s microbes are doing, we can better understand how billions of years ago they helped to transform the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans into what they’re like now.

Layer by layer, into the lake

Two and a half billion years ago, ocean waters had enough iron to form…

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