Research at the world's freshwater laboratory

Our unique structure allows IISD-ELA researchers to work with governments, industry, and other academic scientists to identify and study new and emerging concerns before they become large-scale environmental problems.


Throughout our history, and at any given time today, many emerging threats to the health of our precious freshwater supplies are being studied, with the ultimate goal of influencing practice and policy for the better, in Canada and around the world.


These include (but are not limited to) algal blooms, climate change, drugs, acid rain, plastics, mercury, and oil spills.


Long-term ecological research (LTER)

At IISD-ELA, five lakes are set aside for long-term monitoring under our LTER program; Lake 239, Lake 373, Lake 114, Lake 442, and Lake 224 (see link to our map here). These lakes are not manipulated in any way and, as such, are often used as control lakes for the various experiments performed at IISD-ELA. Control lakes are important to our experiments to verify that the effects we see are a result of manipulation and not a product of natural variability.


Since our LTER lakes are not manipulated, the long-term monitoring program has become increasingly important in identifying how lakes and the animals that inhabit them react to subtle changes in climate.

IISD-ELA is “the SUPERCOLLIDER of ecology.

Dr. David W. Schindler, OC, AOE, Dphil, FRSC, FRS, Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta

How to receive data

We are committed to ensuring the information collected from our research is available to the public. If you are interested in our data, please fill out our Scientific Data Request Form.

Scientific Data Request Form


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.



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.


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.



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.

Are you visiting as a researcher?

Interested in proposing a new experiment, joining an ongoing or proposed experiment, or having IISD-ELA staff collect data of interest to you? Plan your extended stay at IISD-ELA.

Research visits at IISD-ELA