What is the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA)?
If you’ve ever taken an undergraduate-level course in ecology or biodiversity, you’ve probably heard about this distinguished research station. The ELA is a system of 58 lakes set aside for research. It is located in a sparsely populated area of Northwestern Ontario, far from industrial development. Although the ELA was previously government-funded and run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, it is now privately owned and run by the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD).
In 1974, David Schindler (founding director of the ELA) and his colleagues conducted a simple, yet elegant experiment to better understand how algae can take over an entire lake, creating an algal bloom. They decided to split Lake 226 in half, and add nitrogen and carbon to one half, and nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorous to the other. When the algal blooms only appeared in the half with phosphorous, they knew that phosphorous was a key factor driving algal blooms. As a direct result of this experiment, countries around the world took action to limit the amount of phosphorous entering their waterways. This experiment demonstrates the importance of the ELA as a natural laboratory. Researchers can gather impactful evidence to better understand key issues affecting the natural world and then use this information to inform policy and encourage positive change.
What research were we working on at the ELA?
The goal of this summer’s project was to determine whether the remote lakes at the ELA are contaminated by microplastics. By now, we know that plastic is a globally ubiquitous contaminant: it’s been found everywhere from urban areas, such as the Don Valley River in Toronto, to more remote locations, such as the Mariana Trench and the Arctic. Sampling at the ELA gave us a unique opportunity to evaluate contamination in remote freshwater lakes.
Just how remote is the ELA?
The field station is located at the end of a 30 km gravel road off the Trans-Canada Highway. It consists of a meal hall, 3 dormitory cabins, a chemistry lab, and a fish lab. Due to its remote location, the camp is not connected to Ontario’s main power grid and thus remains completely off the grid: there is no cell service and very limited Wi-Fi (used for research purposes only).
What was daily life like at the ELA?
So, what’s it like to be a visiting student at the ELA? To live and work at this natural laboratory? In summary: it’s pretty sweet.
A typical day went like this: wake up early, get dressed, go to breakfast at 7:30 am, pet a dog (there were usually 1 or 2 waiting outside the dining hall), eat, meet with colleagues/supervisors to go over the plan for the day, travel to the sample site, collect samples, eat a packed lunch (always sandwiches), travel to next site, sample, travel back home, hopefully make it back for dinner (very rare, but there were always leftovers), participate in fun evening activity, pet a dog, sleep. Repeat.
Reaching our sampling sites could take 30 min to 2 hours, depending on the lake. To access each lake, we used a combination of driving, boating, canoeing, and portaging. The easiest site to reach was Lake 239, which was accessible by motorboat. The most difficult site to reach was Teggau Lake, where we paddled across Lake 239, portaged, paddled across Roddy Lake, and finally portaged another 1.2km before finally arriving at the site. Even though it was a long journey, we were lucky to have an amazing group of people that made the trip seamless and worthwhile.
By the time we returned to camp, we were always exhausted and hungry. Luckily, the camp chefs had prepared a delicious meal while we were away. And it never disappointed – the food was always plentiful and delicious. Some of our favourite meals included pizza, beach barbecues, and pumpkin pancakes.
After dinner, there was usually a fun activity for us to participate in. This included Wednesday night seminars where we learned about on-going projects at the ELA, sing-along bonfires, a paint night, art shows, and even a triathlon. These events were well-attended by everyone at camp, despite our long workdays.
While our days at the ELA were long and grueling, our stay was impactful. Every minute involved trying or learning something new, chatting with researchers and new friends, or simply enjoying the raw nature around us.
What’s next for our work at the ELA?
Our ultimate goal at the Experimental Lakes Area is to do a whole-ecosystem experiment. In contrast to typical laboratory experiments, this large-scale experiment would provide us with ecologically relevant information about the fate and the effects of microplastics. Similar to the famous algal bloom experiment, this project has the potential to influence global action on plastic pollution.
Written by Kennedy Bucci and Hayley McIlwraith, students and researchers in the Rochman Lab. Their work is in collaboration with multiple institutions, including: University of Toronto, Lakehead University, Queen’s University, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and, of course, IISD-ELA.