Researcher Profiles | Jan 1, 2015

Mike Paterson

Winter signals the end of another season of field research at the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA, formerly ELA). Come November, its 11 scientists pack up their gear and head back to Winnipeg for the winter to catalogue and analyze the samples they’ve been collecting since May and start writing up their findings.

Mike Paterson has been doing exactly this for the past 23 years. A freshwater scientist with a speciality in plankton and a PhD from Dalhousie University, Paterson was thrilled to be offered work at ELA in 1992.


Far from cities and industrial activity, IISD-ELA’s 58 pristine lakes and their watersheds provide a unique, real-world laboratory where the effects of human activities can have on whole ecosystems can be studied in isolation.

In 2013, when the government announced it would no longer run the facility, the International Institute of Sustainable Development stepped up to offer the ELA research team a new home, and Paterson was invited to become its chief scientist.

Paterson sees a lot of benefits in moving a science research facility out of government and into an independent policy think tank, since the work at ELA “has always been directed toward policy, with the goal of finding solutions to environmental problems, so we’re a natural fit with what IISD does.”

What makes IISD-ELA special, he says, is that it is the only place in the world where you can easily conduct whole ecosystem experiments, and he cites IISD-ELA’s recent research on the environmental effects of estrogen, the active ingredient in birth control pills, to illustrate the point.

Paterson observes that there is a “real need for studies conducted at the scale of whole ecosystems because the outcomes of contaminant releases into the natural environment may be very different than what you might predict based on small scale studies conducted in a laboratory.”

ELA first made its mark decades ago with its work on the effect of phosphates on aquatic ecosystems. A curtain was used to divide a lake in two. Phosphates were added to one half and not the other. The rapid growth of algae in the first half turned the lake bright green, consumed the lake’s oxygen and suffocated its fish, while the other half remained unchanged. The stark contrast spawned legislation to control phosphates in household detergents and fertilizer runoff from farms almost overnight within Canada and around the world.

Paterson says there are many emerging issues that need the sort of research IISD-ELA can provide: “There is a never-ending list of contaminants and other environmental issues of potential concern. Unfortunately we can’t work on them all. It is going to be somewhat dependent on what funds we can raise,” he says.

High on the agenda is nano-particles, and research at IISD-ELA is already underway.

According to Paterson, the nano-particle industry is a rapidly growing industry, and is predicted to be worth something in the range of a trillion dollars globally in the next few years.

Oil spill remediation is included among the research priorities, which represent quite a diverse array of questions that require deeper understanding. The common thread, of course, is how they affect the environment and ultimately people, says Paterson.

“All the research we do at IISD-ELA, there’s a person at the end of it,” he says. “It is not just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, it’s all about trying to preserve or improve the quality of life of people.”