Lake 239 looks inviting. Pines and spruce fringe the shoreline and waves lap against outcrops of weathered granite. But on this hot August afternoon in northwestern Ontario (see ‘Water works’), one feature stands out. At the far end of the 800-metre-long lake, a series of plastic-walled columns descend from a floating dock to the muddy bottom about 2 metres down. They are the sign that the lake’s placid setting disguises an experiment in controlled environmental abuse.

Jennifer Vincent, a graduate student at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, kneels by one of the columns and empties a vial of silver nanoparticles into it. An iridescent purple cloud blooms in the water for a moment before the metal particles are mixed and disperse. These experiments are the first stage of a three-year, Can$720,000 (US$728,000) project to understand the biological effects of ‘nanosilver’ — an antibacterial agent commonly added to commercial products — and its possible effect on the environment. Previous work has shown that the chemical alters bacterial-community structure, affects algae and may change phosphorus cycling. Next year, the project intends to add nanosilver to an entire lake (Lake 222) and measure its effects across the ecosystem.

With 58 such lakes serving as sites for a broad range of studies, the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is unique in the world. “I don’t take it lightly that you’re basically poisoning a lake,” says Chris Metcalfe, an environmental toxicologist from Trent University, and a leader on the project. But at the ELA, he adds, “you can graphically demonstrate what goes on in a whole lake ecosystem.”

Yet the ELA project, with its laboratory buildings, residences and workshops, may soon disappear. Earlier this year, Canada announced that it would cease funding the ELA after March 2013, a development that dismayed scientists who have made use of the 44-year-old facility for investigations ranging from chemical contamination to the effects of climate change.

The decision was unexpected. On 17 May, ELA employees at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, were called to an emergency meeting, where they were told that the government was no longer interested in experiments requiring whole-lake manipulation. The 17 ELA staff at the institute, including four scientists, who are employed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), were told that their positions will be axed as of April 2013. (more…)

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Nature 488, 437–438

Published 21 August 2012

Written by Hannah

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