Lake Erie "Dead Zone" Getting Worse: Scientists
University of Windsor biologist Jan Ciborowski is leading
the Canadian side of an international effort to learn
the causes of a "dead zone" threatening a large portion
of one of the Great Lakes.
"It's been a bit of a shock ... things are getting worse,"
Ciborowski said of a summer phenomenon that is seeing
the emergence of an oxygen-deprived area devoid of life
in the deepest parts of Lake Erie. It's a repeat of a
problem that plagued the lake during its most polluted
era in the 1960s and '70s, but one that scientists thought
had been licked.
The problem has not only resurfaced after a multi-year
and multibillion-dollar binational effort at removing
the suspected causes, primarily phosphorous overloading,
but the dead zone is forming earlier in the year.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is funding a
$500,000 US effort that will see 40 researchers from 17
universities, armed with an eight-boat flotilla of research
vessels, scour the lake in search of answers to why the
lake bottom is dying.
Almost half that money is going to five Canadian research
groups led by Ciborowski, who is joined in the effort
by Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research scientific
colleagues Tim Johnson, who is based at the Ministry of
Natural Resources research station in Wheatley and Doug
Haffner, the Canada research chair for Great Lakes environmental
Ciborowski said a handful of potential villains has already
been identified, including zebra mussels, climate change
and increased levels of ultraviolet radiation getting
through the Earth's protective ozone layer.
As the shallowest of the Great Lakes warms in the spring
stratification occurs, with the oxygen supply near the
bottom getting cut off by warmer layers of water nearer
the surface. If the oxygen levels there reach zero before
cooler temperatures arrive in the fall, an anoxic situation
develops creating a barren region.
A dead zone is feared for Lake Erie's central basin by
the end of the summer. How it might have an impact on
the area's important commercial fishery is "very much"
a concern, he said.
Ciborowski co-organized a 1999 Lake Erie conference in
Windsor that led to the formation of a scientific network
and development of a Lake Erie Millennium Plan, both of
which are credited for the quick response to this latest
threat to the most biologically diverse of the five Great
"We had this proposal ready to go," said Ciborowski,
adding it was "alarming new data" by Environment Canada
and the U.S. EPA that triggered the release of funds enabling
this summer's action.
IN A NUTSHELL
What: Great Lakes researchers looking into the cause
of a Lake Erie "dead zone," an area devoid of life.