What Happens at IISD Experimental Lakes Area During the Winter?

By Sumeep Bath, IISD Experimental Lakes Area

Lee Hrenchuk snowmobile Experimental Lakes Area
IISD-ELA Researcher Lee Hrenchuk rides a snowmobile at the research site. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

It‘s no secret that the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) is remote. The research site, operated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, is comprised of 58 lakes and their watersheds and located in a sparsely populated region of northwestern Ontario, Canada.

The facility’s remoteness is the reason the location was originally selected almost 50 years ago. It’s only by ensuring the lakes on which we experiment are pristine and untouched by other human activity that we can ensure our results are based on us, and us alone, manipulating those lakes.

The images you might recognize of the site are in glorious summer, with sun reflecting off the lakes, beautiful sunsets and researchers basking in the heat. But the IISD-ELA is open and functioning 365 days a year.

While most of the freshwater science, fish work, tours and educational programming take place during the official summer research season, researchers and facility managers are at the site during icy and bitter northwestern Ontario winters as well.

experimental lakes from above
One of IISD-ELA’s experimental lakes from above. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

What are we doing out there? First, we collect data for our Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, which includes meteorological, hydrological, water quality, and fisheries information from five IISD-ELA lakes and their watersheds. This dataset has been unbroken since 1968, even when the site was threatened with closure. We work on various data, ranging from the oxygen and temperature profiles of the lakes to the depth of the snow and the ice, and use this control data to compare the results between lakes and monitor changes over longer periods of times, such as the effects of climate change.

To physically capture the samples to generate this data, we snowmobile out onto the lakes, set up a contraption akin to a hut for ice fishing, use an electric or manual auger to break through the ice, and get the sample through the newly formed hole.

lake sampling in the winter
IISD-ELA researchers undertake lake sampling in the winter. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

We also track vital meteorological data at the site throughout the year for Environment and Climate Change Canada, so our meteorological site needs to be tended to daily. In winter we can service our equipment and make any necessary repairs and potential upgrades to the site as well.

Where do the other IISD-ELA researchers go and hibernate for the winter? They can mostly be found in Winnipeg, Canada, at the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s headquarters, working on and analyzing results collected during the summer, writing up research, and catching up on emails (which can pile up when you’re working in the field).

IISD-ELA’s doors also stay open for its perennial educational outreach program. In 2016, 12 courageous high school students from Winnipeg’s St John’s-Ravenscourt School braved an IISD-ELA March to take their Winter Survival Course at our research site.  Pauline Gerrard, our deputy director, worked with the school’s staff to arrange three days of survival skill building as the students learned how to build quinzhees (a shelter made by hollowing out a large pile of snow); survive a night outdoors; transport themselves through the snow; and read and understand the weather.

At the same time, the students are exposed to the world-class, unique freshwater science that takes place at the research site and broaden their skill sets as we showed them hydrological tasks on Lake 239. The course proved such a success that more intrepid explorers from St John’s-Ravenscourt School headed out to camp to take the course last month.

With the arrival of spring, IISD-ELA’s fourth research season will expand as the regular researchers and staff return to camp.

Be sure to visit www.iisd.org/ela to stay up to date with all the new research and education and outreach opportunities at the world’s only whole-lake experimentation research site.

Sumeep Bath is the media and communications officer at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area.

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