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Niels de Winter receives a Veni grant for reconstructing climate using shells

11 August 2023
Niels de Winter, specialist in climate reconstructions at VU Amsterdam, will use his Veni grant tp conduct research into small droplets of water locked in fossil shells.

Through this so-called ‘fossil water’, de Winter can obtain detailed information about the temperature and composition of the seawater in which the shell lived during its life. With this information it is possible to make very precise climate reconstructions, which help us to fine-tune climate models even more accurately; a particularly timely subject, with all the current climate changes and increasingly extreme weather conditions.

Climate secrets kept in fossils of mollusks
Shells are unique climate archives because they grow incrementally (a bit like tree rings) and are preserved as fossils for millions of years. ‘Mollusks such as oysters and clams record detailed information in their shells during their lifetime about the temperature and composition of the seawater they live in’, explains the paleoclimatologist. The composition of mollusk shells depends on two factors: the climate and the composition of the sea water in which they grow. From measurements on the shell carbonate alone, it is very difficult to distinguish these two effects from each other. 

De Winter expects that the composition of the ‘fossil water’ in shells is going to show what the composition was of the body fluid from which the animal builds its shell and how this is related to the composition of the seawater. To be able to investigate this properly, the researcher will not only look at fossil shells, but also living mollusks such as cockles and oysters so he can measure what the exact composition was of the seawater these animals grew and lived in. Hopefully, the information provided by the ‘fossil water’ can provide the missing piece in the puzzle of how shells are formed, helping to extract detailed climate information from the shell.

Future predictions by studying past climate
Thanks to new lab techniques at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, it is now possible to measure the chemical composition of this ‘fossil water’ in shells grown in the lab, and in shell fossils of animals that lived during periods of warm climate. With these new measurements, de Winter hopes to gain a better understanding of how shells grow and how detailed climate information is recorded in and can be extracted from the fossils. If this succeeds, a kind of ‘snapshot’ of warm climate periods from the past can be produced. 

These particularly detailed reconstructions provide de Winter with information about seasonal differences in climate and the prevalence of extreme weather conditions during warm periods, the type of information we cannot yet obtain from other climate reconstructions at the moment. ‘These measurements allow us to make our climate models much more precise, allowing us to predict the impact of dangerous consequences of future climate change, such as hot summers and extreme rainfall,’ says de Winter.

The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) has awarded Niels de Winter Veni funding. This will allow him to further develop his own research into reconstructing the climate using shells over the next three years.

The NWO Talent Program gives researchers the freedom to conduct their own research based on creativity and passion. They receive a maximum of 280,000 euros. The program stimulates innovation and curiosity. Free research contributes to and prepares us for tomorrow's society. This is why NWO focuses on a diversity of scientists, domains and backgrounds. Together with the Vidi and Vici grants, Veni is part of the Talent Program.

NWO selects researchers based on the scientific quality and innovative nature of the research proposal, the scientific and/or societal impact of the proposed project, and the quality of the researcher.