Global warming theories may be blown out of the water at Fallen Leaf Lake |

Global warming theories may be blown out of the water at Fallen Leaf Lake

John Kleppe likes having the moon in his back yard.

His astronaut is a small remote control vehicle equipped to explore the floor of Fallen Leaf Lake. In the four years he’s been studying the lake, Kleppe said he has found trees that could challenge traditional thinking regarding global warming.

“This is stuff no humans have seen,” said Kleppe of the video images of the deep lake produced by the rover. “That to me is like having the moon in your back yard … every time we go out, it seems we find another mystery.”

Kleppe, chairman of the electrical engineering department at University of Nevada, Reno, has lived on the lake for 23 years. Around 1998, he got tired of his fishing line getting snagged as he trolled deep in the lake. What could be hovering at 120 feet that would catch his line?

The culprit — a huge rooted pine tree. The submerged trees are all over the lake but tough to spot. Sonar doesn’t detect them because they’re waterlogged. The trees date back 800 years.

Kleppe is betting the perfectly preserved trees deep in the lake hold key historical climate information about the Sierra Nevada. He theorizes that carbon dating and the study of tree rings will indicate periods of extreme dry weather that arrived in 400-year cycles.

“I think we’re sneaking up on it,” said Kleppe, with a glint in his eye and a keen grasp of science, nature and ecological systems. “I think the trees out here might hold a secret.”

If dry periods come in cycles, then maybe it’s not the Industrial Age or the aerosol can that caused global warming. Maybe it’s the sun, Kleppe said.

“We’re talking about the history of precipitation patterns for the medieval period,” he said. “That’s a pretty big deal. If that correlates to solar cycles we’ve really got something. If there is a cycle, than we better store something. We’ve got to think about it.”

But it’s not just the sun that Kleppe is trying to figure out. He stumbled on an organism that resembles a jellyfish but functions like a plant or a fungus. Right now experts are working to identify it. Is it a plant or animal or both?

Fallen Leaf may also hold valuable information about glaciers. The rover, at around 340 feet, about as deep as the lake gets, found logs with rocks squarely on top of them. The rover used its 3-inch claw to sample the log. Results may arrive this week. Kleppe is guessing the odd placement of the rocks may be part of a slide into the lake caused by glaciation that dates back 15,000 years.

Kleppe is not doing all this work on his own. He has the help of Grant Adams, a 21-year-old architecture student at University of California, Berkeley, and his father Glenn. Grant Adams, an expert at operating the rover, said the possibilities of what their work may produce are exciting.

“What we’re doing out here, in the future, (could) benefit greater humanity,” he said. “That makes it worth it. We could discover what the climate was a long time ago.”

Kleppe said he sees his exploration of Fallen Leaf Lake as a model that could some day be done on a broad enough scale to benefit Lake Tahoe. When technology allows it, he envisions untethered rovers combing the lake to collect data.

But his own ventures into Tahoe are not too far off. Kleppe said he plans to take the rover, worth about $30,000 and funded with grant money through UNR, beneath the surface of Tahoe near Rubicon. That’s where ancient submerged stumps sit. Kleppe said he wants to explore Tahoe at the same depth pines and cedars sit seemingly rooted in Fallen Leaf.

“I think there’s something magic about 120 feet,” he said. “I think the two lakes go down together. There’s a shoreline here, maybe there’s a shoreline there.”

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at

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