Frequently Asked Questions about IISD Experimental Lakes Area

We answer all the burning questions you ask about the world’s freshwater laboratory, oh-so frequently…

1. What is IISD Experimental Lakes Area, and why was it created?

IISD Experimental Lakes Area is the world’s freshwater laboratory—a natural research laboratory made up of 58 small lakes and their watersheds.

As one of the world’s most influential freshwater research facilities, we conduct experiments on real lakes and ecosystems—one of the only places in the world you can do this.

Over the last five decades, we have conducted research projects to explore the impacts of, and solutions to, algal blooms, climate change, agricultural runoff, contaminants such as mercury and estrogen, oil spills, and a growing list of threats to freshwater supplies.

We are located on Treaty 3 territory, the traditional land of the Anishinaabe Nation and the homeland of the Métis Nation. This land is in a sparsely populated area of northwestern Ontario in Canada, approximately 300 km east of Winnipeg, Manitoba, or 100 km west of Dryden, Ontario.

IISD Experimental Lakes Area was originally created as a response to the growing concern surrounding algal blooms on the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Erie. In 1966, the Freshwater Institute was established in Winnipeg by the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. They appointed J.R. (Jack) Vallentyne as Director and W.E. (Wally) Johnson as Head Scientist to address the problem of eutrophication. In 2006, two new staff and student residences were constructed on-site and were named after the founding scientists, Vallentyne and Johnson.

This is what the world’s freshwater laboratory looked like in 1968.

In partnership with the governments of Canada and Ontario, a section of land and water was designated as the Experimental Lakes Area. The Experimental Lakes Area officially opened in 1968 with David Schindler as Leader of Experimental Lake Investigations, a position he held until 1989.

In 1991, Dr. Schindler was awarded the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize, the highest award in limnological research, for research into excess nutrification and acidification of freshwater lakes. Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten Dr. Schindler in our growing list of named residences! The Schindler cabin is a small, off-grid cabin on the north shore of Lake 239, only a short canoe trip away from camp.

Then, in 2014, the Institute for Sustainable Development assumed control over the Experimental Lakes Area from the Government of Canada under three new agreements to ensure the facility’s long-term operation. IISD Experimental Lakes Area celebrated 50 years of groundbreaking scientific research in 2018.

  • Take a look at our ELA 50 Then and Now photo essay to see how we did science then, and how we do science now!
  • Click here to see a timeline of IISD-ELA’s history.

2. What kind of research do you conduct at IISD-ELA? And what impact does it have around the world?

IISD-ELA conducts whole-ecosystem experiments on whole lakes in the boreal forest. Using both physical (reservoirs and dams) and chemical (algal blooms, acid rainhormonesmercurypharmaceuticalsmicroplastics) manipulations, scientists can gain a greater understanding of how historical and current issues are affecting freshwater ecology.

IISD Experimental Lakes Area—the world’s freshwater laboratory—conducts research on whole lake ecosystems.

A team of scientists with Ph.D., masters, and undergraduate students perform the science at IISD Experimental Lakes Area. They are supported by a Board of Directors, Education and Outreach team and an Operations team, which includes an on-site chef.

In addition to individual projects, we also use long-term monitoring techniques in our Long-Term Ecological Research program. This program uses five lakes to monitor chemical and physical properties, including but not limited to temperature, chlorophyll, turbidity, and oxygen level. Our science has had major impacts around the world, from influencing policy on mercury emissions to reducing phosphorous use in detergents.

Click here to see a full list of publications from scientists and students out of IISD-ELA, or click here to see the Research Highlights section of our website.

3. What is IISD and what is its relationship to IISD Experimental Lakes Area?

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is an award-winning, independent think tank championing solutions to our planet’s greatest sustainability challenges.

IISD’s big-picture view allows it to address the root causes of some of the greatest challenges facing our planet today—ecological destruction, social exclusion, unfair laws and economic rules, a changing climate. Through research, analysis, and knowledge sharing, they identify and champion sustainable solutions that make a difference. IISD also reports on international negotiations, conducts rigorous research, and engages citizens, businesses, and policy-makers on the shared goal of developing sustainably.

IISD’s work falls into five programs: Economic Law and Policy, Resilience, Tracking Progress, Energy, and Water.

IISD assumed operation of the Experimental Lakes Area from the Government of Canada in 2014 and saved it from imminent closure. The whole-lake research conducted at IISD Experimental Lakes Area now directly influences the policy work of the Water team—intended to inform policymakers to make decisions to protect fresh water.

  • Click here to learn more about IISD’s focus areas.

4. What does the site look like, and what is it like to work there?

The IISD Experimental Lakes Area research facility is located down a 30-km beautiful and bumpy gravel road. As you enter the camp, first you will see our workshop where our facilities manager works to keep our motorized equipment in working order. Next, you will see the fish laboratory and the chemistry laboratory. The chemistry laboratory building also provides space for offices and laboratory benches to house visiting researchers and the Hydro-limnology, Toxicology, Zooplankton, and Education and Outreach teams. On the other side of camp, Hungry Hall serves as both a dining hall and group use area for seminars, meetings, and just plain old relaxing. Surrounding Hungry Hall and the laboratories are several residences for staff, students, and visitors, including the Vallentyne and Johnson Residences. The site also has smaller cabin-like residences for scientists with families in the part of camp we fondly call Suburbia. All together, we can comfortably accommodate about 55 people.

  • Click here to go on a virtual fly-over of IISD-ELA’s research facility!
  • Or, click here to view camp from Artist in Residence, James Culleton’s point of view.
This is what the world’s freshwater laboratory looks like from the skies.

The IISD Experimental Lakes Area research facility is located on the shores of two of 58 experimental lakes, Lakes 239 and 240. These are two significant lakes, as Lake 239 serves as a Long-Term Ecological Research lake (see FAQ #4), and Lake 240 serves as a reference lake for our ongoing METAALICUS study.

  • Watch our very own Ken Sandiland’s video for more information on the Met Site!
  • Take a look at scientist Ken Sandiland’s blog post on why our lakes have numbers instead of names.

After working hours, families, staff, and students relax at the beach on the shore of Lake 239, enjoy the beach volleyball court, canoe, and prepare for the annual talent show, Variety Night, at the end of the season.

Even in winter, the science doesn’t stop! Our facility manager lives at camp year-round, and our scientists visit monthly to perform winter sampling tasks, such as collecting temperature data or flow data. And, if we didn’t already collect enough data, each morning, an individual at camp will collect data and perform maintenance tasks at the Canadian Air and Precipitation Monitoring Network meteorological site. This station was established in 1969 by the federal government and has been voluntarily run by IISD-ELA staff ever since.

Additionally, our Education and Outreach Team just completed their very first annual winter field course in early 2020.

5. Where do you stand on animal testing?

When it comes to using animals in research IISD Experimental Lakes Area recognizes that it is a privilege and that animals must be treated with the utmost respect. With animal research, we focus on “The Three Rs” of animal use (Replacement, Refinement, Reduction) and decrease harm wherever possible, including the prioritization of non-lethal sampling methods. 

Fish are included in our experiments. IISD Experimental Lakes Area lakes contain small populations of fish, such as Fathead Minnows, Pearl Dace, White Sucker, Lake Trout, and Northern Pike. Projects involving wildlife go through an extensive review process prior to start-up. This ensures all wildlife within the experiment are being treated with respect and compassion according to the guidelines created by the Canadian Council for Animal Care.

Some exciting avenues of research we are pursuing at IISD-ELA include the pioneering of non-lethal testing methods. Imagine if you could gauge an animal’s health just through their mucus. Sounds miraculous, right? In reality, such sampling methods might be reliably used in our not-too-distant future.

6. How are you involved with the local communities?

Engaging with the local communities around our facilities in northwestern Ontario and being involved with the larger freshwater community is an important part of how IISD Experimental Lakes Area operates.  

Staying true to the principles of sustainable development, we know how much value comes from talking to and learning from other people. As our field station is located in Treaty 3 traditional territory, this is especially true of our relationship with the Anishinaabe Nation and the right-holders of Treaty 3 land. By engaging with the local Indigenous Peoples, we have begun to learn what it means to integrate knowledge and to participate as part of a greater community

Education and outreach form another important pillar of how IISD Experimental Lakes Area interacts with local communities. Sharing our work and teaching people about what we aim to do for the environment through our research is a wonderful part of what IISD Experimental Lakes Area is about. We aim to reach the greater community through things like in-school and community presentations and by developing tools educators can use to teach about topics we study. 

Involvement with the local community provides an opportunity to share how we at IISD Experimental Lakes Area are more than just the science that takes place at the research facility. The Artist-in-Residence program is one example of how we strive to show the people around us the vast potential of IISD Experimental Lakes Area. Reaching out through social media (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook), blogs, and traditional media are other ways that we broadly share what we do and why it matters.

7. How can I learn more?

A good way to start learning more about what happens at IISD Experimental Lakes Area is to follow along with the work we are doing through our newsletter (check out how here). When you’re in between newsletter reads, take a look at blog posts that members of our team have written about our work and the science it is based on. You can see more under our “News & Media” section above, or by following this link

If you have a more targeted question, we encourage you to reach out to a member of our team. For a list of everyone, look under the “About” section in our top banner bar or click this link. Each member of our team is very friendly and, even if they can’t answer your question, will do their best to help. 

8. How can I get involved?

There are many ways to be involved with what’s happening at IISD Experimental Lakes Area. 

If you’d like to start with something a little more hands-off, we have plenty of interesting and informative content available on our website (this one, right here!).

For some brief introductions to freshwater research (like, what even is fresh water?), we recommend perusing our Back to Basics Suite for answers to the necessary, and sometimes very challenging, basics of the research we do here. Our “How We Do” videos offer a primer on the nuts-and-bolts of IISD Experimental Lakes Area (and sometimes offer it in English, French, and Ojibwe). Finally, for a catch-all way to stay up to speed on IISD Experimental Lakes Area, check out how to get on our list for the quarterly newsletter

If you’d like to jump right into IISD Experimental Lakes Area, we also have options for directly engaging with us and seeing where all the science (read: magic) happens. One of the best ways to do this is to book a tour, presentation, or video call to learn more about our research and research facility. Follow this link for more information about visiting. For Canadian high school students, we encourage them to check out the Essay/Visual Contest for a chance to visit the site. 

Learning on-site is another way to immerse yourself in all that is IISD Experimental Lakes Area. To engage the next generation of freshwater stewards, we offer field courses to both university and high school students. To read more about field course options and how to access hands-on learning, start on our website here

For more on getting involved with IISD Experimental Lakes Area, we suggest exploring our “Education & Outreach” section of the website (accessible through the search or the drop-down menu). 

9. How can I donate?

IISD Experimental Lakes Area is a not-for-profit, and any work we do is thanks to the generosity of other people who love fresh water. If you’re interested in offering this kind of support, check out the ways you can give. To find out how to make donating work for you, we encourage you to talk to our philanthropy officer, Erin Bend, about the different options. 

If donating just isn’t in the cards for you right now, start helping us by telling your friends, family, and dog about the great work we do at IISD Experimental Lakes Area. Being lake-friendly can be done in many ways.

10. Whom can I contact for more information?

Looking for a more direct connection? Here’s a short directory to help get you started: 

Inquiries from media or regarding communications – Sumeep Bath, Communications Manager

Potential scientific collaborations or projects – Vince Palace, Head Research Scientist 

Outreach and educational opportunities – Sarah Warrack, Outreach and Education Officer 

Engagement with First Nations communities – Dilber Yunus, Outreach Officer

Gifts and donations – Erin Bend, Philanthropy 

For more general information about IISD Experimental Lakes Area, here’s our about page, or check out a list of everyone on our team.