Pictured is the CCSG Limnos docked in Amherstberg. Photo by Andrew Scott.
Pictured is the CCSG Limnos docked in Amherstberg. Photo by Andrew Scott.

Lake Erie has been found to be a net source of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere for most parts of the year by the research project entitled ‘Linking regime shifts to carbon dynamics in Lake Erie’.

The three year research project, which aims to better understand the new ecological state of the Great Lakes, is a collaborative project led by Dr. Marguerite Xenopoulos to assess current and future environmental risks to the Great Lakes through the Strategic Project Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

“Our findings are conforming to the previous research which states that many lakes are net sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and play a role in global climate change,” said Post-doctoral Fellow, Dr. Richard Vogt, one of the team members who works closely with the project.

However, they still have some work to do in terms of understanding the various food web and climatic processes that might underlie the results observed, he noted.

“The primary goal is to examine how its food web structure might be related to the key processes that control the lake’s carbon balance,” says Dr. Vogt. Since carbon forms the basis for all life on Earth, they want to understand the means by which carbon is introduced to the lake, the various transformations it undergoes while in the lake, and then how much is leaving the lake, he explained.

Currently they are in the process of building a carbon budget that will give them insight into whether inputs of carbon balances with its outputs. An example of why this might be important is the role that lakes play in atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, indicated Dr. Vogt.

In extension, Dr. Marguerite Xenopoulos explained that the lake is definitely in its new ecological state. But it is a matter of assessing the extent of its change. If the degree of change is such that it can be recovered, then there is time to take action. On the other hand, if the state is pushed so far to a point where it can’t be turned back, then it calls for adjustment to this new state, she informed.

For instance, while collecting data they found several streams in the Canadian site that exceeded the provincial guidelines in terms of allowable loads. This, according to her, is a serious finding, which has a huge impact on the Great Lake’s health.

Dr. Vogt expanded by saying that it will also help us understand how aquatic ecosystems respond to human-mediated change in the environment. There are numerous potential impacts that humans can have on the carbon cycle, and this research program will give insight into how well Lake Erie is able to support food webs and fisheries, he said.

Furthermore, it will show how contaminants and pollutants are transferred in the lake, and how Lake Erie might be contributing to the global carbon cycle and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane—two important greenhouse gases that play significant roles in global climate change.

The main challenges of the research is largely its lack of manpower and funding, even though there are still a lot of people involved, said Dr. Xenopoulos. There also isn’t a lot of collaboration or consultation to glue everyone together and look at it as a bigger picture. So, lack of oversight from major bodies to collaborate everyone involved is another issue, she said.

Dr. Vogt, added that the other major challenge associated with this project, and any project on such a large lake, is in collecting the number of samples they need to understand what’s going on in all parts of the lake. Lake Erie is large enough that different ends of the water body can behave very differently, both over the course of a year and between years, he said.

Talking to Arthur, Dr. Vogt, gave an overview of their first year which mainly consisted of collaboration with their colleagues at Environment Canada to secure ship time on the CGS Limnos, a Coast Guard Coastal Research and Survey vessel. They then took water samples from all across Lake Erie.

They also collaborated with colleagues at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, who focused on sampling the shoreline. Together, this sampling program should give them a good sense of the various processes in the lake that are important for carbon cycling in the summer, he said.

The way forward for the project is more sampling and data analysis with the goal of better understanding the balance of inflows and outflows of carbon to and from the lake. And, to contribute insight gathered from their work into formulating future management plans that can help assess current and future environmental risks in the Great Lakes, stated Dr. Vogt.

The research team is currently working with the data collected from last summer, and is making decisions about their field program for 2015 to ensure that their efforts are focused and invested in areas that will bring them maximum benefit.