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The University of Minnesota Duluth
BRIDGE - Summer 2007, Volume 25, #1
UMD is a leader in freshwater research, education, and outreach. The efforts of all the programs in the Center for Freshwater Research and Policy are vital to the future of humankind. Under its umbrella, researchers and educators work in the Large Lakes Observatory, Minnesota Sea Grant, the Natural Resources Research Institute's Center for Water and the Environment, and the College of Science and Engineering.
These research and education programs target the global issues that impact fresh water in the 21st century: the availability of clean drinking water for a growing world population, the availability of water for agriculture and industry, the pollution of the environment, and sanitary living conditions. In addition, they conduct detailed research that provides insight on past climate trends.
"The biggest environmental challenge we're going to face on a long-term basis, in 20, 50, or 100 years, is climate change," said Tim Holst, former director of the Center for Freshwater Research and Policy, "And with climate change, of course, we'll have issues of the quantity and quality of fresh water." Global water consumption has risen; parts of the world are now reaching the limits of their supply; and world population is expected to increase. In the coming decade, water shortages will be a serious problem.
As climate change gathers momentum, the world's great rivers and lakes will be dramatically affected. "We're blessed to be on the shores of one of the world's largest lakes. Lake Superior holds 10 percent of the total surface fresh water in the world," said Steve Colman, director of the Large Lakes Observatory.
Even with all that water, Minnesota is still in danger. "Political battles continue to be fought about whether or not, and on what terms, water from the Great Lakes can be exported," said Holst.
Scientists observe the natural systems and the impact of humans on the lake. Water flows into Lake Superior, spends an average of about 200 years, and leaves. Streams and groundwater empty into the lake; precipitation adds to water levels; and surface water evaporates. Many water-related issues join climate change to impact the quality and quantity of fresh water.
"Our activities focus on the upland watershed and how it affects the nearshore regions of Lake Superior, the shallow water areas, coastal wetlands, and adjacent uplands," said Jerry Niemi, NRRI Director of the Center for Water and the Environment. The center's Weber Stream Restoration Initiative is a demonstration project to use the best science available to maintain Lake Superior streams and restore damaged systems in the Lake Superior watershed. "Our activities on the land such as residential development, lawns, and roads all have an effect on our watershed and, subsequently have the potential to damage water quality and fish habitat," he said. The NRRI group, along with Minnesota Sea Grant, is using the best science available to maintain healthy aquatic systems.
"The education projects we conduct, like the summer 'View From the Lake' cruises, help citizens make informed decisions about how they impact the environment in their day to day lives, involving everything from how they manage stormwater runoff from their property to whether they clean off their boat to prevent invasive species spread," said Cindy Hagley, professor of environmental education. One of Minnesota Sea Grant's missions is to educate the public about zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil, and other nonnative species that are infesting Minnesota waterways and endangering the existing ecosystem.
Large lakes are complex systems and they are affected by a recent warming trend. The climate of the Earth has changed in gradual increments over the centuries. Warm and cold periods have alternated. In recent years, these changes have been occurring at a rapid rate. The past two decades have been the warmest on record and that acceleration has been linked to human activity.
Tim Holst headed up the Center for Freshwater Research and Policy
"As counter-intuitive as it seems, the research is beginning to suggest that Lake Superior water temperatures are warming at two to three times the rate of the surrounding air temperatures," said Colman. "Everyone's looking at the changes in global air temperatures, when actually around Lake Superior, water temperatures are warming even faster."
Colman has a unique vantage point. A major focus of the Large Lakes Observatory is paleoclimate study. Lakes and landscapes preserve unique records of past climate conditions. Researchers are working to develop a broad range of techniques for decoding the signals preserved in lake sediments and landscapes. Their work in East Africa, Central Asia, and North America is already providing valuable data for the evaluation of climate history. This work is complemented by NRRI's Ely Field Station where algae in sediments are used to assess the current and historical condition of inland lakes and rivers and their responses to pollutants and other impacts caused by changes in land use, atmospheric deposition, climate, and invasive species.
The impact of residential development and agriculture is having a major effect on many inland lakes as well as Lake Superior. "The phrase 'we love our lakes to death' is absolutely true," said Niemi. "Our footprint on the land and water is too large -- large houses, large green, fertilized lawns, and inadequate septic systems -- all tend to degrade our lakes. It's a very important issue." Cold northern lakes, naturally low in nutrients, are being impacted by nutrients contributed by activities in the watershed such as removing vegetation along shorelines that result in excessive erosion. These problems often result in excessive algal blooms, increased aquatic vegetation, less oxygen, and overall declines in water quality. The entire ecosystem is disturbed when the northern lakes begin to look and function more like the nutrient-rich lakes found in southern Minnesota.
"The contamination of our lakes occurs through agricultural run-off, urban run-off, industrial outfalls, and atmospheric deposition. Because of its remote location, limited industrial activity and large water surface area, Lake Superior receives the majority of its contaminants via atmospheric deposition," said Randall Hicks, the new director of the Center for Freshwater Research and Policy. "To a greater degree, the lower Great Lakes, like the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi, and coastal wetlands, are affected by the nutrients, erosion, and pesticides that we put on agricultural lands. We have to feed people, so figuring out how to reduce those impacts on the world's water supply is a big issue."
Agriculture is now able to produce enough food using irrigation to feed the world's population, given an adequate distribution system. But that ability comes at a cost. "Irrigation is straining the world's aquifers. The Ogallala Aquifer is slowly being depleted," said Hagley. This huge aquifer, under eight states in the Southwest, sees only 10 percent of the water volume taken annually returned by rainfall.
"We've got to look at the big picture when we make policies," Hagley said. "Ethanol production and intensive irrigation require water and may not be appropriate land uses in all areas."
The news is grim. As overall temperatures increase, it is predicted that weather patterns will change, causing additional extreme weather such as heat waves, tornados, and blizzards. Native plants, fish, and wildlife are going to change as their habitats change, with many local populations disappearing.
The Large Lakes Observatory is watching these developments. "In 50 years there may not be much left of the ocean fisheries," said Colman. "According to a paper published in Science magazine in November, if there aren't any changes made, by 2050 the oceanic fisheries may be totally decimated." Researchers in five countries have reported that commercial fishing practices are harming the ability of the fish to maintain steady populations, especially against other threats such as pollution and global warming.
There is Good News
Finally, the world is recognizing the need to preserve fresh water. The main international scientific body assessing causes of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released a report in February that states the warming of the climate is "very likely" man-made, and will continue for centuries. There is now consensus among most scientists, corporations, and governments that human activity that promotes climate change must be halted. Dozens of political and social developments point to positive change. In 2005, for the first year since 1980, U.S. motorists cut the nation's per-driver mileage. Other reports on mass transit ridership and total miles driven nationwide reinforce the notion that people are making lifestyle adjustments.
Some political news is encouraging. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is on its way to ratification by the U.S. Congress. The culmination of a five-year process of negotiations among eight Great Lakes States and two Canadian Provinces, it will implement a water management plan, including protections against major water diversions out of the basin and the promotion of water conservation measures.
States are also beginning to regulate the introduction of non-native species. A new Michigan bill mandates that all ships with ballast tanks that have floated on salt water must either keep their ballast onboard or use a state-approved method to treat the aquatic life in outgoing water.
Researchers are vigilant and vocal. UMD's scientists are not alone. "One of the things that I tried to do early on with the Center for Freshwater Research and Policy is get people together for monthly meetings," said Holst. The Environmental Protection Agency's Mid Continent Ecology Division, one of its largest laboratories in the nation, is also located here, on the shores of Lake Superior. "When EPA and UMD join local private environmental companies, regulatory agencies, and engineering firms, they make up the largest group of freshwater researchers per capita in the U.S.," said Holst. All of them are working together to address freshwater issues.
In addition to conducting research and looking for solutions to the problems, UMD is also bringing the research into the classroom and sharing the information with the public.
The research at UMD can bring surprises. "We are scientists, and ultimately we're all trying to understand how things work," said Steve Bortone, director of Minnesota Sea Grant in Duluth. "We can measure the concentration of PCBs, but what we don't understand is how that packet of water with PCBs got there and how long it has been there."
Colman added, "We're learning things all the time. A good example is how Randy Hicks and Joe Werne discovered a microbe in Lake Superior and other lakes that had been discovered in the ocean only 10-15 years ago. It is a whole new form of Great Lakes life we didn't know about before. It was found in Minnesota only a few years ago and could turn out to be a significant part of the food chain."
UMD puts freshwater knowledge into the university classroom with the Water Resources Science graduate (M.S. and Ph.D.) program. Students develop the breadth of scientific knowledge needed to understand the complicated aquatic ecosystems and watersheds on which they operate.
Education of the public is the top priority. "The biggest challenge of all is to figure out how to make issues like climate change real, to get through to the people who aren't already listening and concerned," said Hagley. "It may take a crisis. The hardest thing is to make them feel like this matters to their lives."
Why has metal in the Duluth-Superior harbor started to corrode at such high rates?
Minnesota Sea Grant pushes to answer practical questions about the state's fresh water. After 30 years of research and outreach in the land of 11,842 lakes and one inland sea, Minnesota Sea Grant has generated over 500 publications, making the program a veritable fountain of freshwater information.
Sea Grant researchers have scrutinized Lake Superior with boats, submersibles, robots, and satellites. They've tackled numerous perils including aquatic invaders, rip currents, and hypothermia. They've documented how fish populations have plummeted, swelled, dwindled, and rebounded. As some combated pollutants washing off the land, others reported on contaminants that fall from the sky. And knowing that there is still more to know, Minnesota Sea Grant continues to hunt for answers.
Take harbor corrosion, for example. Why steel in some areas of the Duluth Superior Harbor and in some European freshwater ports has started to corrode at saltwater rates remains uncertain. To address this mystery, Sea Grant took the lead and along with other organizations convened a panel of national corrosion experts to examine the harbor. Concluding that changes in water chemistry, dissolved oxygen, and/or chlorides from de-icing salts were likely causes, the experts' report is influencing the use of over $400,000 in federal and state money. Additionally, the experts recommended investigating the role that bacteria living on pitted steel might have in accelerating corrosion; this Sea Grant research is underway at UMD.
Other questions, like "what were those goo blobs?" are easier to answer. The tapioca-like beads that periodically mystify beach-goers around Lake Superior are the casings of a native species of zooplankton, Holopedium gibberum. After a "goo outbreak" occurred in 2001, Sea Grant staff and other researchers scrambled for days to identify the transparent blobs. Although scientists aren't sure why masses of abandoned Holopedium casings have started washing ashore during some summers, as they did again in 2006, some suspect that spiny waterfleas, invaders from Eurasia, might have disturbed Lake Superior's food web in a way that allows this native species to thrive.
Sometimes, "Is there a better way?" is the question to ask. When it comes to managing invasive sea lamprey in the Great Lakes, there could be another way...an odorous, non-toxic way. Seeded over a decade ago by Sea Grant funds, researchers recently made a significant breakthrough after years of incremental steps; they identified the components of a larval lamprey pheromone that attract adults to spawning streams. Sea Grant is supporting the synthesis of these compounds, expecting they could be used to lure lamprey into traps. Sea lamprey are currently controlled with a chemical lampricide and barriers that block spawning runs.
Bortone and his team are working hard to help the public understand complex scientific issues. "Minnesota Sea Grant is committed to the idea that practical questions need scientific answers and the answers need to be heard by peers, policy makers, and the public," he said. By communicating about subjects ranging from beach bacteria to climate change in meaningful ways, Minnesota Sea Grant moves people towards understanding challenges, appreciating complexities, and making thoughtful choices with regard to water and water quality.
Minnesota Sea Grant is part of the National Sea Grant Program, which supports 30 similar programs in coastal states throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. It is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Minnesota. Learn more about the Minnesota Sea Grant at: www.seagrant.umn.edu.
A fine, but necessary, balancing act takes place at UMD's Natural Resources Research Institute--encouraging economic development with environmentally sound decision-making. This is vitally important because many Minnesotans depend on natural resources, including our forests, minerals, and fresh water.
NRRI takes on the challenge of protecting water resources by providing both basic and applied research to the state's resource decision-makers. Here are a few current examples:
NRRI's vast and comprehensive Great Lakes Environmental Indicators project was completed in 2006 to identify, evaluate, and recommend a portfolio of environmental indicators that measure the condition of the entire U.S. Great Lakes coastal region. These bio-indicators include bugs, birds, fish, and plant life in and around the lakes. Their abundance or scarcity, the stressors they live with, and their effectiveness were thoroughly analyzed. Human-related stressors--agricultural runoff, population density, land development, and others--were also categorized in a Condition Index for each of the 762 watersheds that drain into the lakes. Armed with this in-depth research, the Environmental Protection Agency is now able to evaluate the condition and measure the degradation taking place in the Great Lakes. This will lead toward restoring healthy populations of plants, fish and wildlife--ultimately protecting human health, as well.
Closer to home, 42 streams in the Duluth area are being carefully watched for signs of impairment. These urban streams pick up road and yard waste as they wend their way to Lake Superior. One particular watershed is getting special interest because of an endowment from a former Duluth resident. The Lester and Amity streams are popular fishing spots that are now impaired with excessive sediment from development in the area. The Weber Stream Restoration Initiative is working to restore good health to the streams and ensure wise development decisions are made in the future.
Individuals are also getting assistance to make smart decisions about their property. NRRI is helping Duluth Township develop an Internet server tool that private landowners can use to apply for permits to make changes on their land. The site has important geologic and soil data, aerial maps show where parcels sit in a watershed, and guidance is offered for sketching their proposed changes. This Internet-based program will also be expanded to larger areas to protect our water resources.
On the microscopic level, a team of NRRI scientists in Ely, Minn., take deep sediment core samples from lakes to learn centuries-old histories of water quality. By studying the remains of change-sensitive algae that builds up over hundreds of years, the scientists are able to determine changes in water quality and what caused those changes. There are some 20,000 different species of algae, and each has its own environmental preference, leaving clues to a site's condition over time. The same algal research is being applied to large rivers--the Upper Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Missouri rivers and their watersheds. Like the Great Lakes Indicator Project, the goal is to rank portions of the rivers from "good" to "highly degraded" based on various indicators so that management actions can be prioritized.
NRRI scientists use all the technolo-gies at their fingertips to share what they know with the public. Real-time water quality data from lakes and streams can be viewed on the Internet using interactive animation tools that make the data come alive. It's accessible to teachers, students, city planners, developers, and the general public. LakeSuperiorStreams.org provides public access to information about stormwater management issues and the biology of streams that feed into Lake Superior. WaterontheWeb.org incorporates lake and river data from throughout the U.S. into high school and college curricula. The project, LakeAccess.org, monitors water quality in three of Minnesota's most heavily used lakes and one urban creek watershed targeting information to anglers, boaters, swimmers, and watershed residents.
The only institute in the country dedicated to the study of the world's major freshwater lakes, the Large Lake Observatory (LLO), is seizing attention for its research on aquatic chemistry, physics, and sedimentology. Its paleoclimate study, which analyses lake bottom sediments for clues to past climates and climate changes, is of particular interest. It's capturing significant recognition from the international community.
LLO is equipped with tools that are the envy of freshwater researchers. Among these are the Blue Heron, a limnological research vessel, and a recently acquiredx-ray fluorescence core scanner.
The $400,000 core scanner is one of only six in the world, and two in the United States, and it has been running practically 24-hours a day since June 2006, when it arrived at UMD. Essentially a large box, the scanner is about 17 feet long and 30 inches high. Housed in the center of the apparatus, an x-ray device can make rapid measurements of the chemical composition of samples. The scanner, under the supervision of LLO's Erik Brown, professor of geological sciences, produces results in a fraction of the time it used to take to conduct chemical analysis. It has another benefit; x-ray testing doesn't destroy the samples, as physical sampling does.
Many of the LLO's recent discoveries are attributed to the evidentiary information the scanner produced. They have used the scanner to analyze long cylinders of sediment raised from the floor of the Great Lakes, lakes in Central Asia, and lakes in East Africa. These core samples are retrieved by driving a hollow tube into the lake bottom. By examining the layers within the cores, researchers can see deposits of dust and organic matter that indicate seasons. In Duluth, the cores move under the x-ray a fraction of an inch at a time, establishing a timeline through the record of changes in climate, vegetation, and land use.
New research by LLO's Tom Johnson, professor of geological sciences, and J.M. Russell, former UMD grad student now at Brown University, uses geochemical analyses of well-dated sediments from Lake Edward. It shows that central Africa experienced severe drought during the "Little Ice Age," 1500-1800 A.D. The results suggest that the climate of central equatorial Africa has been wetter and more stable over the past century than at any time during the preceding millennium. This finding implies that central Africa is overdue for a return to prolonged drought that would severely disrupt developing East African economies.
The observatory was also part of a team that collected core samples from the bottom of Africa's Lake Malawi in 2005. The samples contain a record of climates dating back 1.5 million years -- 15 times older than previous records. As this publication goes to print, results of this landmark study are being presented to the scientific community.
Johnson said that it took a major drilling operation to extract the core. "We've been able to remove 20-30 foot cores from lake basins in the past, but this time, we were able to extract a sedimentary core that was 1,000 feet long," he said. "It's an extremely long record, and it's going to tell us a lot about tropical Africa and even about early Homo sapiens." LLO is comparing their findings with other climate models and studies of the ocean sediment cores.
In Minnesota, LLO's Jay Austin, assistant professor of physics, assisted by Steve Colman, conducted a study that indicates that Lake Superior summer water temperatures are increasing more rapidly than regional air temperatures. Colman said that large mid-latitude lakes, which often freeze over in winter, thoroughly mix during spring and fall, and stratify in summer due to solar heating, provide a closed environment for study. "We focused on Lake Superior," Colman said. "We analyzed data from buoys, weather stations, and historical ice records, and found that summer surface water temperatures have increased approximately 2.5°C since 1979, roughly twice the rate of atmospheric warming." The team hypothesizes that this discrepancy is caused by declining winter ice cover, which increases the ability of the lake to absorb solar radiation.
Steve Colman, director of the Large Lakes Observatory and professor of geological sciences,
LLO's research, and the research of other scientific teams that hire LLO's sophisticated equipment, are advancing the understanding of climate change and the future of our environment. For more information on Large Lakes Observatory and their research, visit www.d.umn.edu/llo.
-- Cheryl Reitan with Marie Zhuikov, Sharon Moen, June Kallestad, and Jenna Hagen
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