Experimental Lakes Area new focus on outreach, science

Published: September 7, 2016


Part one of a two part series on the ELA as it opens its doors to the public

To many local residents travelling the Trans-Canada highway between Vermillion Bay and Kenora the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) access road sign is seen, and most likely, quickly forgotten.

However, for the scientists and biologists, and now visitors, the turn off the highway is the start of a journey to a living laboratory whose research results have fueled policy implications around the world.

The ELA is a network of 58 small fresh water lakes that have been used as a natural laboratory since the 1960s. Until 2012 the facility was funded by the federal government under Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s freshwater science program. In 2014 the facility was turned over to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

Matthew McCandless has been the Executive Director since April of that year and he managed the transition leading to the amalgamation. He says since the IISD has taken over, major changes to the organization have been independence and the ability to welcome the public into its scientific world of discovery.

“The people of Northwestern Ontario have generally been supportive of the ELA but also to a large extent haven’t been here or have known what was happening,” explained McCandless last month. “One of the areas we have been pursuing is opening this place up and having people understand because truly what we are doing is trying to protect water resources around the world.”

The fresh water lakes that are included in the ELA are used to conduct ecosystem experiments. Chief Research Scientist Michael Paterson says the goal of the work being done is to better understand human-caused threats to the environment

“One of the things that have been very clear is that the predictions that are being made on a small scale do not translate well to eco-system scale,” he says. “This is the only place in the world where you can easily do whole ecosystem experiments where we take small lakes in our watershed and manipulate them to mimic human activity and to test out different remediation strategies.”

Research projects conducted in the fresh water system have broadened the understanding of the impacts of acid rain, algal blooms, and climate. The effects of contaminants like mercury, pharmaceuticals and nanomaterials to ecosystems have also been studied.

Paterson says a large component of broadening the understanding of the facility and the research being conducted, has been to work directly with local stakeholders, which include communities, First Nations, industry and other research partners.

“When it comes to policy and the environment they are the ones that are being directly affected by what we are looking at. It is clearly advantageous to work directly with them,” he adds noting that for the second summer in a row a student has been assigned to outreach and tours of the facility are being conducted regularly.

On Aug. 10 the Liberal government announced new core funding for the ELA that McCandless says will allow the team to focus on remaining at the “forefront of freshwater research.” This includes looking at new threats to water research and how to either prevent them from happening or offering regulatory or policy solutions to protect fresh water.

Paterson adds that there have been many misconceptions regarding the research done previously and that he wants locals to know that lake manipulations are observed and remediated.

“All the lakes that we work on are small. We never add anything to the lake that is a health threat to anybody. When we manipulate lakes we manipulate them to levels that are observed typically in 10s of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of lakes around the world. For the mercury study we brought that clean lake up to the levels of almost all the lakes in Eastern Canada.”

Next week the Northern Sun News explores some of the scientific research being conducted at the ELA including a study on the ecological effects of nanomaterials such as the silver nanoparticles used as odour-fighting and antibacterial agents in clothing and other products.

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