Experimenting with the Health of Our Lakes

Monday, June 25, 2012

lake, multi-coloured, nature, aerial photo

From the humble beginnings of researchers working out of dilapidated trailers, using plywood and tarps to keep the rain off, to the emergence of a modest but highly sophisticated research facility; the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) has transformed our knowledge of freshwater ecosystems, and produced an impressive body of research; the depth and completeness of which cannot be found elsewhere in the world. Since its creation in 1968 the ELA has faced funding cuts 3 times, previous to the government's most recent cut in the now infamous omnibus bill C-38. The ELAs research has contributed substantially to our understanding of managing algal blooms, acid rain, climate change, mercury pollution, greenhouse gas fluxes from hydroelectric reservoirs, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Dr. Schindler, a renowned scientist in his field was on campus recently, speaking to the importance of preserving this essential research body. Disruptions to funding and research, he argued, compromised the integrity of the data sets making it near impossible for comprehensive findings to be extrapolated from their work, work which has already contributed substantially to our understanding of how our lake ecosystems operate and external variants which might negatively affect them.

With recent cuts and restrictions being put on research facilities and environmental programs, Dr. Schindler argued that Canada is losing its ability to access its own environmental health, and by association its future. Schindler explained that Freshwater lakes across Canada are all facing new challenges at the hand of climate change. Warming lake temperatures are predicted to intensify the eutrophication problems being faced by lakes across the country. This combined with increasing acidification levels of freshwater bodies leading to the reproduction rates of smaller but essential members of the aquatic food chain to bottom out, has led to a grim prognosis for Canadian lakes, especially without monitoring mechanisms in place. 

What this means on a larger scale is not just the collapse of fish stocks and subsequently the inland fishing industry, nor the continual toxification of one of Canada’s most important natural resources, and unpredictable consequences to surrounding ecosystems that will result from it. If unchecked the degradation of our freshwater bodies will also have a tremendous impact on indigenous communities, particularly of the north, as the lakes in that region are more sensitive to temperature and acidity variations. “If we don’t do something to stop this, and soon, we are going to see a huge shift in the economic and cultural climate in this country” Dr. Schindler stressed.

Unless the ELA is able to find alternative funding for its research, it will find itself sleeping with the fishies by this time next year. With it will go years of invaluable research and our ability to monitor the health of what is arguably our most valuable natural resource.

Dr. Schindler visited the University of Ottawa last week to speak about these issues. He was passionate, he was articulate, and he was looking for our help as he denounced the cuts to the program. Its seems rare that something so important gets announced at the University, but why is that? The University is a research intensive environment and this topic affects research, and not only that it affects research that is being done by the uOttawa community.

We often think of scientists as dispassionate individuals that function on the merits of logic only (Vulcan culture as it were). But our society is enriched by the passion of those who want to make a better planet. Can't scientists be activists too, especially when it comes to such an important issue as the environmental health of our lakes?

~kira - campus sustainability coordinator
photo credit - jonathan rausseo

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