This Is What We Do—and Why...

In a time of growing populations and a rapidly changing climate, our nations are struggling to respond to challenges to their fresh water.


These challenges include the impacts of climate change, agricultural runoff, water management, contaminants such as mercury and organic pollutants, and a growing list of new chemical substances.


IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) is an exceptional natural laboratory comprised of 58 small lakes and their watersheds set aside for scientific research.





Located in a sparsely populated region of northwestern Ontario, Canada, the lakes in the region are unaffected by human impacts. By manipulating these small lakes, scientists are able to examine how all aspects of the ecosystem—from the atmosphere to fish populations—respond. Findings from these real-world experiments are often much more accurate than those from research conducted at smaller scales, such as in laboratories.


This unique research approach has influenced billion-dollar decisions of governments and industries. It has generated more cost-effective environmental policies, regulations, and management, all to ensure the safety of our freshwater supplies.


The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is now proud to operate this world-class facility. Since we took over operation in 2014, we have already initiated new ecosystem-based science, responding to today’s threats to our water; collaborations and partnerships with outside researchers and universities; and educational activities that promote and build capacity for freshwater science and policy action in Canada and around the world.


IISD’s independent, evidence-based approach to the development of policy recommendations and tools complements the facility’s strong scientific foundation. IISD and the ELA work together to strengthen efforts to address global freshwater issues by directly applying world-class scientific research to create innovative policy solutions for regional and global water management.


You can download our promotional brochure here, and you can access our strategic plan for 2023-2028 here.

A unique facility! Nothing like it in the world.

Margaret Atwood, Canadian poet and novelist

infographic of an ecosystem created by the IISD Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario


The Freshwater Institute is established

The Fisheries Research Board of Canada established the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg in 1966. One of the priorities for this research facility was to investigate the eutrophication (or “algal bloom”) problem plaguing many lakes across North America, inlcuding Lake Erie. W.E. (Wally) Johnson, the first director of the FWI, assembled an international team of research scientists under the leadership of Jack Vallentyne to address this problem.


Site selection for the Experimental Lakes Area

Extensive surveys were conducted in 1966 and 1967 to select a suitable site for the proposed Experimental Lakes Area. In northwestern Ontario, 463 lakes were surveyed on the ground and by helicopter to determine lakes of sufficient depth and area. In 1968, the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, who controlled the area as Crown land, agreed to designate the watersheds of 46 small lakes as the Experimental Lakes Area—a number which ultimately grew, over the years, to 58 lakes and their watersheds.


Experimental Lakes Area officially opens

The Experimental Lakes Area was a truly original concept—and it continues to be. The discipline of experimenting on whole lakes and their watersheds to understand the impacts of human activity on fresh water, and to use that scientific knowledge to influence practice and policy, has had an incredible impact on environmental policies worldwide for over 50 years.


Incredible research takes place that changes freshwater policy around the world

From algal blooms to acid rain, from 1968 to 2014, a great deal of research on real lakes took place to change how we understand the impact of human activity on fresh water and to influence environmental policy around the world.


Learn more about our research—past, present and future—here.


Algal blooms

Discovering the key causes of harmful algal blooms was the raison d’être for the Experimental Lakes Area, and we have continued, in some capacity or another, to research the impacts of algal blooms ever since we opened. Our longest-running experiment, on Lake 227, has provided invaluable information to the scientific community and the public about the role of phosphorus in eutrophication. Subsequent experiments have explored the roles of iron and nitrogen in the development of algal blooms.


Learn more about how we have been tackling harmful algal blooms for over fifty years here.


Acid rain

To mimic the acidity of the rain that was falling on freshwater ecosystems at the time (in the mid-1970s), researchers intentionally acidified lakes at the site to determine acid rain’s impact on the flora and fauna of freshwater lakes. Findings then influenced legislation put in place globally to curtail industrial emissions.


Discover all there is to know about our work on acid rain here.


Reservoirs and dams

Researchers raised the water level in Lake 979 and its bog to simulate flooding for hydroelectricity generation. Two issues concerning hydroelectric developments were the production of methylmercury (toxic to humans, as well as zooplankton and fish) and the release of greenhouse gases that can contribute to climate change. At IISD-ELA, we have a long history of research on the effects of dams and reservoirs—and Manitoba Hydro has been a longtime partner. In all cases, we ultimately want to provide advice on how to design and manage reservoirs to minimize their impacts on the environment.


Show how much you give a dam about this research by clicking here.



From 2000 through 2007, mercury was added to Lake 658 to mimic changes in mercury falling in rain. The project was designed to help us understand how mercury released into the atmosphere from coal-fired power plants and other sources affects mercury concentrations in fish. Nearly 8 years after the mercury additions stopped, scientists were still monitoring the recovery of the ecosystem. The results supported proposed mercury emission reductions in Canada and the United States and were influential in the Minamata Convention on Mercury.


Discover more about the issue and our research here.


Birth control

A synthetic estrogen (EE2) that is commonly found in birth control pills was added to the surface waters of Lake 260. Over the course of the experiment, researchers found that male minnows within the lake began to show female characteristics, which eventually led to a population crash in the lake.


Learn more about our work on birth control pills, and other drugs taken daily around the globe, here.


Climate change

By diverting the inflow into Lake 626, scientists tried to mimic climate change by simulating a drought. With reduced inflow into the lake, researchers could measure physical and chemical changes in a small boreal lake. Acoustic tags were implanted into a small portion of the population of fish in the lake, and their movements were tracked throughout the open water season.


Learn how we have been exploring climate change since before climate change was a thing here.



Silver nanoparticles are becoming increasingly common in clothing for odour elimination. To discover what effects nanosilver could have on the health and dynamics of an aquatic ecosystem upon entry, researchers introduced an “environmentally relevant” amount of nanosilver to the shoreline of Lake 222. Researchers from Trent University have been measuring their effect on all levels of the food web in Lake 222.


Get into the nano-details about this work by clicking here.


IISD saves the Experimental Lakes Area

In April 2014, IISD, the Government of Ontario, and the Government of Canada signed three agreements to ensure that the facility would continue to operate.


A new era

And ever since, we have been conducting new research on everything from plastics to oil spills, have (literally and figuratively) opened our doors to the world, and are not showing any signs of slowing down or stopping.


Discover our new era of tackling threats to fresh water here.


Oil spills

Oil spills occur when oil being transported by truck, rail, or pipeline unintentionally spills into the surrounding environment. To address some gaps in knowledge that we have about the impact of oil spills on fresh water, since 2017, a groundbreaking project has been taking place at IISD-ELA to answer pressing questions about what happens when oil enters freshwater systems.


Allow us to spill all about this research here.


The lakes turn 50!

Fifty years had now lapsed since we cut the ribbon on the world’s freshwater laboratory. We celebrated in style by reconnecting with old friends and making plans for the future.



The impact of plastics on aquatic systems is big news and of major concern these days. Microplastics (plastic particles that are smaller than 5 mm) have also been acknowledged as a truly ubiquitous contaminant in recent years. Since 2019, researchers have been conducting experiments of increasing scale to explore what happens when plastics get into our lakes.


Read all about life in plastic here.


We embrace Africa!

Since 2020, we have been putting our heads together with the finest freshwater minds across Africa to share problems, expertise and solutions.


Learn more about our work on the African Great Lakes.

We offer tailored presentations

Interested in our work? Presentations from IISD-ELA are adaptable and can be tailored to various audiences interested in a range of issues related to freshwater science.

In-School and Community Presentations