AN IMPORTANT PART of any student's education is hands-on experience. In 1968, a rare opportunity to put this maxim into practice materialized as the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in northwestern Ontario. Some have referred to it as a summer camp for scientists.
The ELA provided an ideal field site to train graduate students and get them involved in world-changing science. Researchers and students from around the world have come to the ELA for more than 40 years to conduct whole-ecosystem experiments. These experiments are done on small lakes because laboratory-based studies fail to represent the real world. Small lakes, the kind you could canoe across in a leisurely 15 minutes, provide the realism required for applied freshwater research.
This idea is simple yet powerful: to study lakes before, during and after they are subjected to experimental changes. Lakes and rivers around the world are altered as human populations alter the flow of water and add wastewater nutrients, toxic compounds and acid rain. At the ELA, these same manipulations are conducted in a controlled setting that is unavailable in and around cities and towns. For each experiment, the planet’s best researchers and students are assembled, and their work becomes relevant everywhere. The educational opportunities at this freshwater incubator are immense, and its results are invaluable.
And yet, the Government of Canada wants to close the ELA, just when we need it most. This past May, federal employees were abruptly told that the facility would be shut down as a result of 2012 budget cuts.
Distinguished ecologist James Elser from Arizona State University recently likened the closure of the ELA to “sort of like the US government shutting down Los Alamos – its most important nuclear-physics site – or taking the world’s best telescope and turning it off.”
Peter Dillon, a Royal Society of Canada fellow and watershed biogeochemistry expert, calls the ELA “Canada’s flagship environmental research centre. The work done at this site has been instrumental in providing information that has been the foundation of many of Canada’s environmental policies and regulations concerning our aquatic resources.”
Findings by ELA researchers and their students led to phosphorus being eliminated from detergents to save Lake Erie, which in the 1960s and early-70s was plagued by algal blooms, unswimmable waters and beaches littered with dead fish. The 1991 Canada-USA Air Quality Agreement to reduce acid rain was signed because ELA research showed that regulations were not nearly stringent enough to protect lakes and fish populations. The US government now limits mercury emissions from coal-fired plants because ELA scientists showed that doing so would reduce neurotoxin exposure in fish, and therefore humans. More recently, studies of high concentrations of estrogen in freshwater ecosystems have identified the need for better wastewater treatment technologies and product regulation.
Both graduate and undergrad students have always been in the thick of this big research with global significance. Many ELA graduate students have gone on to successful academic careers, including geochemist Paul Quay and Canada Research chairs Mark Servos and Brian Branfireun. In addition to the more than 1000 scientific articles produced by ELA research teams, more than 125 graduate theses – both master’s and doctoral – were completed on site. It is not hard to find ELA alumni as high-level scientists all over the planet.
John Shearer came to the ELA near the end of his bachelor’s degree in the summer of 1969. The excitement and atmosphere of world-class research ultimately kept him working there in the field, lab and eventually as the operations manager until his retirement in 2007. Shearer describes the origins of the ELA as a direct response to the problems with Lake Erie. Ultimately, an international group of researchers was assembled to figure out the causes of numerous environmental problems and the strategies needed to deal with them. Shearer says the effect has been like a scientific immersion program for graduate students.
Until the 1970s, most freshwater research in Canada was heavily focused on fisheries, and the ELA brought together scientists from Canada, the US and UK, Europe and Japan, all at the same time. “There’s no question that working at ELA was the most formative educational experience I’ve had, and you see the mark of the ELA on university departments across the country,” says Helen Baulch, an alumna who became an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “It’s the reason that Canada has been a leading nation in freshwater research.”
Baulch’s master’s research combined new experimentation on near-shore microbial communities using decades of biological, chemical and meteorological monitoring data to assess the impact of climate warming on lakes. She applied the results to her PhD about nitrogen loading into agricultural streams and the production of nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas and destroyer of ozone. “Working at ELA informs your entire perspective,” says Baulch, “and most importantly, my time at the ELA helped me start to see and understand environmental problems at the scale of whole ecosystems. It’ll be a career-long challenge to think and work at the ecosystem scale, but one that the ELA has proven to be possible, and to be absolutely critical in understanding today’s water issues.”
One critical part of the ELA approach to science is that everyone lives in a field camp together in the boreal forest. When Baulch was there in 2000, she “could grab a coffee and eat breakfast with top researchers, discussing new science or getting insight into my own science. I could canoe out to sites where some of the most pivotal aquatic research has been done – affecting environmental policy around the world – and learn from the amazing diversity of research going on on-site.”
Britt Hall, associate professor at the University of Regina, did her graduate work at ELA in the late-1990s and early-2000s. She looked at how quickly mercury content increased in water – and the subsequent bioaccumulation in fish – in the aftermath of flooding to create hydroelectric reservoirs. The problem of mercury in commercial and sport fish rising above safe consumption levels became apparent in the 1970s, after the construction of very large reservoirs in Manitoba, Quebec and Labrador. It has remained high in some reservoirs for decades. Recommendations from research done by Hall and her colleagues have since been used by Manitoba Hydro to design reservoirs that reduce the risk of elevated mercury in fish.
Working at the ELA had a substantial impact not only on Hall’s research, but also on her life. “You live five months of the year with a diverse set of people that you are united with because of a passion for the environment and science. I met lifelong friends there. I was exposed to art and music and books that I would never have discovered. I started an amazing journey of self-discovery there that I am still continuing, albeit at a much slower rate. It makes me sick that others may not experience that. It makes me sick that I won’t be able to take my kids there and tell them how being at the ELA changed my life.”
The interaction with scientists that Baulch and Hall describe has also left an indelible mark in my mind. During the summers of 1999 to 2003, I did my graduate research at the ELA, and volunteered to do field work with many research groups. I collected samples for mercury testing in Teflon bottles, took plankton samples, collected fish data and clipped vegetation. Whether sitting in a boat or walking through the forest, I learned why those other researchers sampled the way they did and why they looked at a lake differently than I did. These experiences markedly improved my own research, which focuses on greenhouse gas production in hydroelectric reservoirs and nutrient cycling in rivers.
Without the kind of detailed, multi-year, whole-ecosystem research done at the ELA, government policy aimed at managing the planet’s freshwater sources would be like a shot in the dark. It would take another generation of researchers to rebuild this capability if we lost it, which is what will happen if the ELA is shut down in March 2013.
I was at the ELA in June 2012, a month after the closure announcement was made. There were new projects underway and excited grad students in tow. But the concern for the ELA’s fate was palpable. Would this be the last time any of us would be there? Would students have their theses cancelled? Would Canada lose its ability to protect freshwater and fish using critical research? Would we lose the next generation of aquatic scientists?
I recall times at the ELA when more than a dozen PhDs would be sitting around with grad students, talking about great science and how to produce it. The lessons I learned in that setting were wider, deeper and more illuminating than anything I could have learned from a small advisory committee with a narrow research focus. Without the wisdom that comes out of those 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario, we’ll end up floating through that dark in a canoe with no paddles, trying to save ourselves with ideas that may not hold any water.
Learn more and/or lend your support to the Coalition to Save ELA at saveela.org.
To demonstrate the impact that ELA Alumni have made on the professional science community, we asked Shearer to identify a dozen former student researchers who have gone on to do important work with other institutions. Read Shearer's profiles of their achievements.
Read A\J's exclusive (and extensive) interview with David Schindler, who helped establish the ELA and became one of the country’s freshwater science pioneers.
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