QJScience: Experimental Lakes Area stays open

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a unique research site in Northwestern Ontario consisting of 58 freshwater lakes, will remain open despie recent questions about its future.

Its federal funding was cut last year to save money, and it was suspected that the ELA would shut down altogether. However, earlier this month, it was announced that two parties are working together to keep the famous research site functioning, although it might take a while for it to once again operate at full capacity.

The Government of Ontario will provide $2 million annually and a group from Manitoba will contribute another $900,000 over six years. The funding from Manitoba will come from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a non-profit organization based in Winnipeg that will gain ownership of the ELA over the next year.

The ELA was opened in 1968, and its initial intentions were to facilitate the study of the effects of eutrophication: the process by which a body of water is saturated in excess nutrients, resulting in oxygen depletion. Since then, countless studies have been done at this site, covering a wide range of subjects, including the effects of detergents and pharmaceuticals on lakes and lake acidification.

In the early 70s, Canada was at the forefront of limnological science, and the ELA was a vital contributor. What makes the ELA so unique and invaluable in terms of scientific research is that it provides the opportunity to do whole-lake experiments, which are quite different from laboratory experiments.

Countless studies conducted at the ELA have resulted in policy, such as regulations on the amount of phosphorus permitted in laundry detergents. Shelley Arnott, a professor at Queen’s who researches lake ecosystems, says that creating important environmental policies need to be based on excellent science. She’s unsure how these policies can be created if critical research sites such as the ELA are shut down. Although Arnott isn’t using the ELA directly in her research, she says it has provided her with a lot of valuable knowledge. First, the site has a record of long-term data which she has used as reference for her work.

Furthermore, a large aspect of her research is studying areas that are under stress, such as the lakes in Killarney Park that have been greatly affected by acidification. The ELA is located in an area that isn’t surrounded by stressors, which provides a nice contrast to her study sites, allowing for comparison between the different lake systems.

Arnott is extremely pleased by the news of the ELA remaining open, and said several of the experiments done at the ELA have produced indisputable results – there’s really nothing equivalent to the power of whole-lake experiments.

For more information on the campaign to preserve the ELA: http://saveela.org/about-us/

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