Lady of the Lakes

Nature

Diane Orihel set her PhD aside to lead a massive protest when Canada tried to shut down its unique Experimental Lakes Area.

It was an ominous way to start the day. When she arrived at work on the morning of 17 May 2012, Diane Orihel ran into distraught colleagues. Staff from Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area had just been called to an emergency meeting at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg. “It can’t be good,” said one.

As a PhD student working on her dissertation — not a staff member — Orihel was not allowed in. But an hour later, she heard the news. Michelle Wheatley, regional director of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), the federal department responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), had dropped a bombshell: owing to budget cuts, the field station would close on 31 March 2013. Staff members should begin removing their equipment from labs and lakes. Wheatley instructed them not to speak to the media.

The closure would strike a blow at the heart of freshwater ecology. The ELA — a field site of 58 freshwater lakes in the boreal forest of northwestern Ontario — has since 1968 been the only facility in the world where scientists can manipulate or even intentionally poison an entire lake to monitor the effects. Work there proved that phosphorus from fertilizers sparks algal blooms; quantified the effects of acid rain; showed how mercury accumulates in fish; documented the release of greenhouse gases from hydroelectric reservoirs; and revealed how the synthetic oestrogen in contraceptive pills feminizes male fish. Orihel herself had spent most of a decade doing summer fieldwork in the lakes.

Orihel had no experience as an activist, and was not comfortable in the spotlight. But she was immune to the gagging order because she did not work for the government. She stepped up, becoming public historian, promoter and defender of the site. “I felt a moral obligation, a responsibility, to be the voice for ELA because the ELA scientists couldn’t,” she says.

At first, Orihel had hoped to get the closure decision reversed within three weeks. She ended up putting her PhD on hold for six months. By the end of that time, she had become one of Canada’s most outspoken defenders of science funding and evidence-based policy.

Keep reading this story at Nature.

More great photos of the ELA by Ihor Kor. 

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