Published in The Lakeland Times
Each year, Boulder Junction’s sparkling freshwater lakes attract throngs of tourists, offering an ideal summer view and respite from the heat. But beyond their aesthetic value, lakes are also one of the region’s most important environmental powerhouses, impacting everything from the local ecosystem to global climate change.
That’s precisely why 99 international scientists convened at Camp Manitowish last week for the ninth bi-annual, week-long Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON) meeting. The scientists came from government institutions and universities in 16 different countries across six continents to acquire and share lake data.
Before the network formed in 2004, scientists researching lake ecology typically worked independently, creating isolated observations. Now, the scientists say they’re better able to share their observations to create a broader perspective of scientific patterns around the world.
“The theory behind the network is that we can ask the big questions, use new technology, share expertise and experience. And now, we only have to make a mistake once,” said Tim Kratz, chairman of the network’s steering committee and director of Trout Lake Station.
Kratz said Cayelan Carey, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell university who is studying how lakes respond to algae blooms, is an example.
“She sampled two lakes by herself, and now she has access to 25 lakes,” he said. “That would not be possible alone.”
Carey said the network has also allowed her to organize and coordinate scientists from around the world to participate in her project.
“GLEON provides the framework to both collaborate internationally and synthesize data from lakes worldwide,” she said.
The network can also help scientists compare unique geological, climatic, and cultural settings to examine how lakes change over time. This information is gathered from sensors the network has deployed on lakes around the world, which monitor aquatic variables and collect data every one to 10 minutes. This data is then wirelessly conveyed to computer databases.
From this data, scientists can glean essential information about the health of an eco-system by examining lake properties, such as the amount of oxygen and carbon in the water. The ratio of these elements is determined by the balance between photosynthesis – the process in which plant organisms in the lake take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and respiration – the process in which those lake organisms emit carbon dioxide. The balance between photosynthesis and respiration forms the metabolism of a lake, which in turn forms the base of a food chain; the higher the metabolism, the more lake plants grow, which in turn nourish organisms such as fish, turtles, frogs, and birds.
By studying lake metabolism, scientists have discovered that lakes are hot spots for collecting and processing carbon from surrounding terrestrial areas – which is crucial component of mitigating global climate change.
Through examining data acquired by the sensors over the past three or four years, GLEON is also making breakthroughs on current scientific understanding of these interrelated processes.
“We thought we had an understanding of a lake metabolism,” Kratz said. “But it turns out there’s a lot more short-term variability than we ever thought. We’re not sure yet what drives that variability, but with a rich data set we’ve acquired, we can get that answer.”
Kevin Rose, chair of GLEON’s student association and a Ph.D. student in the department of zoology at Miami University, is currently researching what’s behind that variability.
Rose said he is particularly looking at how UV radiation, which increases from human activity, impacts a lake’s metabolism and carbon cycle.
“The less algae, the more transparent the lake,” he said. “More transparent lakes have less fish. So the light influences how productive a lake is.”
A lake’s variable productivity leads to a metabolism that fluctuates more widely than scientists previously thought. These fluctuations have broad implications on how efficiently lakes process carbon and other greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere, which also directly impacts global climate change.
“Climate change and other anthropogenic activities have the potential to impair the way humans use their environment,” Rose said. “To combat these environmental problems, it is necessary that we bring together scientists from across the globe and use technology to monitor the ecosystems in question.”
Though modern technology increasingly facilitates remote global communication, Kratz said GLEON’s bi-annual meetings also provide necessary face-to-face collaboration.
“Without face-to-face meetings and eating meals together, without personal interaction, none of the international collaboration would happen,” Kratz said. “Breaking down interpersonal barriers and taking time to give people a cultural experience is necessary to be productive in collaboration.”
With both advances in technology and global networking, Kratz said their data is more extensive and reliable than ever.
“Before, it was like trying to observe the world for only two hours, and the rest of the time you had to keep your eyes shut,” he said. “Now, we can observe and keep our eyes open for a full 24 hours.”