IISD Experimental Lakes Area – The world’s living laboratory

Visitors to Experimental Lakes Area prepare to board a boat.

Visitors to Experimental Lakes Area prepare to board a boat.

By Sumeep Bath

When it comes to breathtaking vistas, seemingly endless open space and pristine lakes bordered by dense forestland, it’s pretty hard to beat Northwestern Ontario. This is an unspoiled part of the world that any self-respecting nature lover should have prominently placed on their bucket list.

Don’t be fooled by its unassuming beauty; however, Northwestern Ontario is more just a pretty face. In fact, since the late 1960s, a group of its 58 remote lakes and their watersheds just north of Kenora has also performed a vital scientific function: one that has revolutionized the way we research fresh water. Studies done here have led to numerous groundbreaking discoveries into what affects our water supplies, and have led to rewritten policies regarding water health around the world.

International Institute for Sustainable Development  Experimental Lakes Area is like no other fresh water research facility in the world. Instead of researching the effects of certain pollutants and processes in a laboratory or a test tube, IISD-ELA researchers experiment directly on the lakes themselves, as they exist in nature. When you work with a test tube, you are working with isolated factors in an artificial setting. When you manipulate a lake (for example, by intentionally adding a certain contaminant), you are working with a full ecosystem, and are able to examine how all aspects of the ecosystem — from the atmosphere to fish populations — respond. We call this “whole-lake experimentation.”

Since its inception in 1968, IISD-ELA is the only place you can do this in the world on a long-term scale. The site has been researching new and unstudied threats to our water supplies like no one else can.

IISD-ELA was the first place to discover that phosphorus leads to harmful algal blooms in lakes, which in turn led countries around the world to take steps to reduce the amount of phosphorus (such as that found in our laundry detergents) entering waterways. IISD-ELA proved in the 1970s and eighties that acid rain resulted in dramatic impacts on lakes, including the collapse of fish populations. Other revolutionary work conducted at the site over the last fifty years has explored the effects of hormones, mercury, pharmaceuticals, aquaculture and more on our water.

IISD-ELA’s legacy is long and illustrious, and we have the experimental lake area to thank for cleaner water and a much better understanding of how we should treat our water supplies. Despite the progress made, threats to our water supplies have not gone away. And as we start to brace ourselves for the impending impacts of climate change and need to learn about new chemicals and pollutants entering waterways, IISD Experimental Lakes Area is here to meet those challenges head on.

For example, for many years nanosilver particles with anti-microbial properties have been added to consumer items, such as clothing, washing machines and baby products, but are relatively understudied when it comes to what they could be doing to lakes and rivers. IISD-ELA has started to add nanosilver to one of its 58 lakes to learn more about the impact they will have.

Climate change has been occurring since before the site opened, and before we knew we were even researching it. Thanks to the long term datasets we have been keeping, however, we are able to now look back and see the changes to the lakes attributable to climate change.

Under the operation of a policy-focused think tank called the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the science can reach policymakers directly, making sure that the people who make vital decisions about the health of our water have access to the most accurate and recent findings on fresh water.

So when you next turn on the tap, or drink a glass of water, take a second to think about how lucky we are to have such a unique scientific facility keeping our water clean and free of pollutants. Or when you’re next flying to Winnipeg, enjoy the majesty of northwestern Ontario; just remember that if you look beyond those iconic trees and lakes, there is much more to the place than meets the eye.

For more information on IISD Experimental Lakes Area, visit www.iisd.org/ela.

Scientists drawing in a seine to temporarily capture fish.

Scientists drawing in a seine to temporarily capture fish.

Researchers on the banks of Lake 626, working with a trapnet to capture fish, assess their health and then release them back safely into the lake.

Researchers on the banks of Lake 626, working with a trapnet to capture fish, assess their health and then release them back safely into the lake.

Scientists analysing fish on the banks of a lake.

Scientists analysing fish on the banks of a lake.

Setting up a stationary hydroacoustics system in Lake 626 to observe the movements of invertebrates and lake fish.

Setting up a stationary hydroacoustics system in Lake 626 to observe the movements of invertebrates and lake fish.

Researcher Ken Sandilands drilling through the ice to sample a lake in the winter.

Researcher Ken Sandilands drilling through the ice to sample a lake in the winter.