Algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg 2010

By Kelly

I’m sure that you agree with me that the proposed closure of Canada’s Environmental Lakes Area (ELA) is a travesty and a sad indictment of where this country’s government is placing science on their agenda. Earlier this year, and discussed here on the blog,  the scientific community was shocked to learn of the gagging order placed on Canadian climate scientists. An even more effective tool than sending minders to monitor your scientists is to stop the science all together. Haven’t a clue what I’m raving about? Please, allow me to share.

The Environmental Lakes Area is a series of 58 pristine lakes used to study whole lake processes since 1968. While you may not be familiar with the project, some of the ground breaking research that has occurred here directly affects all our lives. For example, it is here that Dr David Schindler and his team were able to pin point that it was the phosphates in detergents and other household products that were directly responsible for the problematic algal blooms occurring in fresh water systems. The results from this study alone not only dramatically informed our understanding of nutrient requirements in phytoplankton, but led directly to changes in the ingredients of these products in countries across the globe. But that is not all. The site has enabled whole lake manipulations to study effects from acid rain, to fish farming, to endocrine disruptors and reservoir construction. Where else can you control the input of sulfuric acid, or estrogen, or heavy metals into a freshwater system and study the effects? (If you work for a large Multi-National, please don’t answer that).

One of the great difficulties scientists have when trying to manipulate environmental parameters is one of scale. We call theses ‘perturbation experiments’ or ‘bottle experiments’, and as an example we lower the pH of the water so we can see how organisms may respond to acidification. However, while we gain insight into certain mechanisms (say nutrient uptake, or calcification rate) it is difficult, or some might say dangerous, to then extrapolate to an entire ecosystem. Do we really understand all the feedbacks that occur in a large system such as a lake, or an ocean? The ELA enabled entire lakes to be manipulated with great scientific reward.

This is not breaking news, in fact the announcement of the lakes closure occurred in May. But I was in Canada last week, lamenting the closure with friends who also happen to be scientists. Coincidentally, an article just appeared in that gospel of journals, Nature, that describes what critics are calling ‘a broader hostility towards environmental science within the federal government’. There is a glimmer of hope that a deal can be struck, between government, universities and the private sector to raise the ~$2 million dollars per year required to keep the facility running and to cover salaries. Two million? That’s all? What about the billions  needed to fund the pipelines necessary to transport Canada’s oil to China as quickly as possible. Surely $2 million is loose change?

I will soon apply for my Canadian passport, my husband is Canadian and three of my closest friends are Canadian. I love the place. But I haven’t felt this kind of disappointment since Australia refused to sign Kyoto.

The article in Nature is open access, and a very good read. You can find it here.