Trent Research Threatened by the Closure of ELA

The scheduled closure of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in March of next year threatens to put an early end to a multiyear whole lake experiment run in part by researchers at Trent.

The Lake Ecosystem Nanosilver (LENS) Project, a collaboration between Trent University, Environment Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has just completed its preliminary year of study atELA. Researchers had intended to begin their whole lake manipulation on ELA’s Lake 222 early next year.

As part of federal budget cuts, ELA is set to be shut down unless a government agency or a third party steps in to carry the cost of running the facility. The annual cost is said to be $2 million.

The world-renowned ELA is a unique research facility in northwestern Ontario where research generally involves experiments and manipulations of entire lakes. Whole lake experiments allow certain factors to be controlled and results can be recorded at the ecosystem scale. The experiment’s influences on water, soils, plants, fish, plankton, and more can be measured to provide an overall conclusion. These whole lake studies at ELA “have been regarded as definitive” explains Chris Metcalfe, Director of the Institute for Watershed Science at Trent University and a lead in the LENS Project. “It’s more difficult to ignore a whole lake study.”

The purpose of the LENS Project is to study the effects of silver nanoparticles on aquatic ecosystems. Nanoparticles are microscopic particles that have a wide range of uses. Silver nanoparticles hold anti-bacterial properties and are used in an increasing number of products, including odor and bacteria-resistant clothing, sports equipment, cosmetics, washing machines, and food packaging. Washing these items can result in the release of particles into our water system. The use of nanoparticles is growing, yet little is known about how they affect our lakes and rivers.

If ELA closes, the LENS project will “go to plan B” says Metcalfe. Instead of doing a whole lake experiment, researchers could do smaller mesocosm manipulations or work within an enclosure that is several meters across. However, according to Metcalfe, Plan B “doesn’t give you a really good indication of what might happen in a whole lake experiment.”

Early laboratory studies have shown that the nanoparticles affect organisms at the bottom of the food chain, such as algae and plankton. How the particles then affect upper levels of the food chain, or the chemistry of the lake environment, is hard to determine without experimenting on an entire lake ecosystem and observing the responses.

Doing a whole lake experiment is vital to the study of silver nanoparticles and aquatic ecosystems, argues Marguerite Xenopoulos, an Associate Biology Professor involved with LENS. “You can’t take a lake and put it in a beaker. Whatever we do in a lab, although it has some value and some merit, it’s not the same as when we do a whole lake experiment.” With the increase of nanoparticle usage, “will anyone be able to tell us [what the effects are] if ELA closes? I don’t think so. There’s no other place in the world where you can do this.”

The chance to do a whole lake experiment is partially what drew Beth Cheever, a post-doctoral researcher with LENS, to the project and to Trent University. Cheever is an ecosystem ecologist and was interested in being involved in a whole lake manipulation and looking at the ecosystem responses.

The LENS Project also involves several Trent graduate students who spent the summer at ELA helping with the initial mesocosm studies. Although their studies may not be directly affected by the closure in March, many are disappointed with the government’s decision to close ELA.

At ELA, graduate students live and work side by side with leading researchers, an experience unique to the site. Graham Blakelock is one of the students who worked at ELA during the summer. He finds it “very disappointing, just knowing that other young scientists won’t get this experience in the future.”

“I can’t think of any way to replicate last summer’s learning experience for a young aquatic scientist.”

Until ELA closes in March, studies will continue. There is unsubstantiated talk that a consortium may take over before the site closes. Until he hears otherwise, Chris Metcalfe is “reasonably optimistic.”

A group of concerned scientists and citizens has created the Coalition to Save ELA. The Coalition has been pressing the government to reverse its cuts to ELA, or transfer the facility to Environment Canada. Updates and petitions are available on their website.