Research highlights | Jul 18, 2023 | By Jennie Wang , Communications Assistant

Seven Things Going Down at the World’s Freshwater Laboratory This Summer

While it might seem as though the past few summers at IISD Experimental Lakes Area have been busy, this 55th field season might actually be the busiest yet.

No, but really…

Our scientists are hard at work tackling existing and emerging threats to our freshwater supplies, so without further ado, here is a rundown of what is going down this summer.

It appears that an important player that helped get us through the trenches of the COVID-19 pandemic may also be a threat to aquatic environments. Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) are the most common active ingredients in many sanitizers and disinfectants. QACs work by disrupting the cell membranes of bacteria and lipid coats of viruses. But this very feature could also be harmful to algae, fish, bottom-dwelling invertebrates, and even mammals. Using enclosures in one of our lakes, scientists at the site are studying the effects of QACs—from water chemistry to fish populations—on freshwater lakes this summer.

In collaboration with Indigenous partners, we are merging science and food security by looking at sustainable wild rice growing techniques that reduce both water usage and greenhouse gas emissions. Cultivated wild rice is typically grown at a water depth of 30 cm, but this summer, scientists are experimenting with growing two kinds of wild rice in mesocosms at various depths and saturation levels. They will be measuring greenhouse gas emissions in the water and soil. This experiment is part of a broader multi-year project that will look at the co-culture of wild rice and fish.

green tubs in the sun

In its third year now, the aptly named pELAstic project looks at the impacts of three kinds of microplastics on lakes and their watersheds. Plastics in the environment continue to break down into smaller and smaller particles, but their effects on everything from algae to lake trout remain largely unknown. This summer, the project moves into its whole-ecosystem study era—with results and solutions to improve practice and policy to come.

So, it turns out a chemical produced when tires break down could be deadly to certain fish species. 6PPD is an antioxidant used in tires to protect against the sun. Over time, when wear particles accumulate in roadways and are exposed to sunlight, 6PPD transforms into a toxic compound called 6PPD-quinone. Eventually, runoff of this compound finds its way into freshwater systems. Currently, researchers are using microcosms to explore the effects of sub-lethal concentrations of 6PPD-quinone on fish and ecosystems.

Physical removal of oil to validate in-lake treatment (PROVE IT) is looking to determine whether more aggressive methods of cleaning oil spills have a greater impact than minimally invasive ones. A part of a greater suite of projects looking at the impact of oil spills on fresh water, which saw the use of fertilizers to stimulate bacteria as a minimally invasive way of cleaning oil spills, PROVE IT has seen the excavation of 1,100 lbs of shoreline material, which will be analyzed for the presence of oil. Moreover, the impact of shoreline removal on the wider ecosystem will also be studied.

Using environmental DNA (eDNA), scientists are investigating whether climate change is affecting where central newts live. eDNA allows researchers to measure the environment in a minimally invasive way. Amplifying fragments of DNA in water, air, and soil, samples can be studied in the lab to identify species without even having to interfere with them. The study of central newt habitats matters because they can pose a threat to western and eastern tiger salamanders.

Time passes, seasons come and go, but algal blooms remain an important part of the research conducted at IISD-ELA. Eutrophication, the process responsible for algal bloom, is one of the leading causes of ecosystem and water degradation around the world. Our research on the role of phosphorus in algal blooms has had ground-breaking impacts on both science and policy. Many jurisdictions across North America are now considering the removal of nitrogen from wastewater to control algal bloom. This move is a contentious one as removing nitrogen is a costly task, and its effectiveness on eutrophication remains unknown. So, the REME project is addressing this scientific controversy by investigating whether the removal of nitrogen can curb algal blooms and the conditions under which this could be possible.