You would have to have been living under a rock over the last couple of weeks not to have heard of the federal government’s decision to withdraw funding forCanada’s world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area (ELA). Research emerging from this network of 58 small lakes in northwest Ontario has helped to clean up Lake Erie (see Figure 1), saved municipalities millions of dollars on the design of sewage plants, and shed light on the ecological pathways by which acid rain harms lakes.
The imminent closure of the ELA has not gone unnoticed internationally, and threatens to add another twist to the death spiral of Canada’s environmental reputation.
Water experts from around the world have weighed in to condemn the closure, and a who’s who of leading aquatic experts have written an open letter to Steven Harper requesting that he reverse the closure.
- No statistics needed. Key experiment on Lake 226 showing the effects of adding nitrogen plus phosphorus (bright green at bottom) versus nitrogen alone (dark green at top)
An irreplaceable facility with a unique history
There are some really good reasons why the scientific community is up in arms about the ELA. I learned some of them on Tuesday night, when I attended an information meeting on the ELA hosted by the Green Action Committee of the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Winnipeg and the coalition to save ELA.
- In attendance were former scientific directors, chief scientists and students of the ELA. Several of these folks had made the ELA their life’s work, and they spoke with passion and knowledge about the great work that has flowed from this facility for over forty years.As a scientist, I took home three important messages about the ELA’s work.
- Long-term research programs are powerful instruments for producing results that could never be replicated by short-term experiments. For example, a forest fire in the watershed of Lake 239 allowed researchers to study the long-term impacts of the fire on both aquatic and terrestrial organisms.
- The continuous collection of biophysical data from five control lakes (those with no experiments) allows scientists to calibrate the result of experiments against natural environmental fluctuations. This is smart research at its best! Ecologists know that animal and plant populations, as well as weather patterns and climate, show semi-regular cyclic changes that have to be understood if the results of experiments are to be fully interpreted. Data from the control lakes allows scientists to do this.
- Whole lake studies allow researchers to gain insights into natural processes that are impossible to obtain in the laboratory. Whole lake studies allowed ELA researchers to see that small organisms (copepods, shrimp etc.) were killed by levels of acidity far below the lethal dose for lake trout. The trout suffered because the food chain on which they depended had been undermined. According to Ray Hesslein, former head of the ELA, their studies of the effects of acid rain cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sounds like a lot until you realize that the US EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) spent millions of dollars on laboratory studies of acid rain without gaining much insights into its effects across the ecosystem.
Long term monitoring data, an intimate knowledge of the biota and chemistry of each lake, and a dedicated permanent field staff have allowed the ELA to produce ground-breaking research for 40 years. Minister of the Environment Peter Kent has speculated that the ELA facilities could be transferred to lakes in Saskatchewan. But if that were to be done, it would be necessary to start off the whole program from scratch – collecting the baseline data, and establishing the knowledge base needed to work effectively in challenging aquatic environments.
If funding were to continue, I am certain that great results would continue to flow. And the costs are fairly modest – about $2 million per year – great value for money, if you like to buy your science by the pound! Compare this to the $1.9 million it cost to create a FAKE lake for last year’s G20 summit in Ontario, or $385 million for one F-35 military jet that could quickly become scrap if a Canada goose flew into its single engine.
Or try thinking of it this way. The 2012 federal budget was about $275 billion give or take. Now, if you scale that figure down to a junior scientist’s salary of, say $50,000, the cost of maintaining the ELA would be about that of an Earl Gray teabag!
So, basically, the government is flushing a world class facility that enhances our international reputation to save themselves the cost of a tea bag!
If you are a scientist, I encourage you to sign the open letter from prominent scientists to Steven Harper. And download a petition for your friends and family to sign and return to the ELA coalition.