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Experimental Lakes Area: Busier than ever

05 Jun 2018 9:46 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Coming to Winnipeg for SWCC 2019? A few conference attendees will be able to add on an overnight tour of the Experimental Lakes Area.


By Jay Whetter

Lake Erie “died” in the 1960s. Excessive nutrients in the lake, due to runoff and pollution, first caused a massive growth in algae. As this algae died, it took up all the oxygen in the water and the fish died. The scientific name for this process is eutrophication.

In response to the Lake Erie situation, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans set up the Experimental Lakes Area (https://www.iisd.org/ela/) in 1968 to study causes and solutions to eutrophication. Lakes 226 and 227 were the first lakes studied. Those first studies concluded that phosphorus added to a lake caused excessive algae growth that led to eutrophication. By reducing phosphorus runoff through farm and lawn fertilizer practices, regulation of detergent ingredients and improved water treatment facilities, we could greatly reduce algae growth.

ELA kept going, studying acid rain and mercury effects on freshwater lakes and more recently nano silver, diluted bitumen (from oil pipelines), aquaculture and climate change effects on lake habitat and health.


The research facility seems stronger than ever. After the federal government pulled funding in 2012, a non-profit called the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) took over. This summer the facility has 60 researchers, students and support staff on site – the most ever. ELA has 58 lakes, chosen for their relative containment and variety of sizes and depths. Through IISD, ELA also expanded its mandate to include education and outreach. That is why the ELA staff look forward to presenting at the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada conference in Winnipeg May 23-25, 2019 and, for a select few, hosting an overnight tour at the ELA site four hours east of Winnipeg.

Research at ELA is in five primary fields: Water chemistry, hydrology/limnology, fish biology, zooplankton biology and phytoplankton biology.


Here are a few quick notes and observations from my visit to ELA on Friday, June 1, 2018:

1.     When studying the effects of additives, researchers use very low doses. They want to mimic the more serious of contaminated lakes and rivers, but they don’t want to test higher levels that will cause unnecessary stress on the ecosystem. So they take a low and slow approach. For mercury research, for example, they use a mercury isotope so it can be tracked through the ecosystem. Over five years they have added only one teaspoon of mercury isotope to the waters. They don’t even use mercury thermometers anymore in case one breaks and adds more mercury unnecessarily. Top predators will accumulate the most mercury, but the good news, as ELA science has shown, is that once mercury levels coming into the ecosystem are reduced, bioaccumulation throughout the ecosystem will start to reverse.

2.     As many of the research projects at ELA have concluded, once a problem is identified, it can often be corrected through changes in human activity. We can make a difference!

3.     Because Canadian Shield lakes have bedrock bottoms for the most part, they are not rich in food for fish. Lakes with weedier or bio-rich beds also have more food and therefore more and faster-growing fish. With climate change, the ice-free periods for Canadian lakes are longer. You might think longer summers would mean fish get bigger, but the opposite happens. Fish are cold-blooded, so a longer summer means the fish metabolism is increased for more days per year. But the food source in these Shield lakes does not increase to the same extent. Therefore, since fish can’t take in enough food to match that rising metabolism, climate change means that fish are getting smaller. 

4.     ELA’s remote and pristine location makes it perfectly suited to study climate change effects on fresh-water lakes because it doesn’t have the other influencers, including human population growth, changes in energy use or sewage treatment, etc., that will confound trend analysis for others bodies of water.

5.     ELA has its own scientists on staff, but also does a lot of collaboration with various universities and institutions. While I was there, a representative from the U.S. EPA was looking into the diluted bitumen research at ELA.


In the few hours I was at ELA, I saw a black bear outside my truck window and encountered an aggressive and very territorial ruffed grouse. ELA is a hive of science, complete with lots of indoor labs, ATVs to access remote lakes on little trails, canoes galore and, at night, complete darkness to show off the amazing skies. It combines world class science in a wild Canadian setting. It’s pretty easy to fall in love with the place.

Here is a link to further information about ELA and science communication. 

Jay Whetter is on the SWCC board and leads the Winnipeg 2019 organizing committee. He lives in Kenora, Ontario, and spends most of his time writing about agriculture.