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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes Need More Scientific Attention

Larry Oakes Star Tribune Northern Minnesota Correspondent

Jul 21, 2002 LAKE21

DULUTH -- Ten of the world's largest lakes, including North America's Great Lakes, contain two-thirds of the world's surface fresh water, and some intriguing unsolved mysteries to boot.

With that in mind, a group of 20 scientists gathered in Duluth last week beside the biggest lake of them all -- Lake Superior -- and reached this consensus:

Faced with threats that include global warming, exotic-species invasions and a growing shortage of potable water in dry regions, the United States has a vital interest in making sure these lakes get more scientific attention.

"Fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce," said John Janssen, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Water Institute.

"The people around the Great Lakes largely take this water wealth for granted," Janssen said. "That will change quickly."

Scientists also are intrigued by such mysteries as the origin of strong currents, described by some as underwater storms, that periodically scour the bottom of Superior and other large lakes.

Prof. Thomas Johnson, director of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth, host of the conference, said: "The amount the National Science Foundation spends on large-lake research is less than 1 percent of what it spends on oceans. We think that's a major mismatch."

Scientists who study lakes and ponds came to the conference from 15 universities and several scientific institutes around the country. They agreed at the end of the three-day event to ask the National Science Foundation, administered by the federal government, to create a new program specifically to fund large-lake research.

The foundation appears willing at least to listen: it sponsored the conference and asked for recommendations from the scientists.

Besides the Great Lakes, bodies of water the researchers have in mind include Lake Baikal in Russia and several large lakes, such as Victoria and Malawi, in the East Africa's Rift Valley.

Scientists say the most immediate need is for more underwater observation buoys designed to gather data on changes in temperature, currents and the levels of certain nutrients and chemicals.

The Duluth observatory has only two such buoys, but would like more. They carry close to $100,000 worth of equipment and are anchored 50 feet below the surface, where they record data until they are retrieved by the observatory's research vessel, the Blue Heron.

Scientists on the vessel use a radio signal to activate an "acoustic" release that allows the buoy to surface so they can pick it up. The acoustic release alone costs $8,000, Johnson said.

The data these buoys collect can help construct models that could predict such things as what would happen to a lake's ecosystem if part of its water were siphoned off, if pollutants continued to accumulate in the water or if climate change caused a lake to warm significantly.

Lakes that sing

Several scientists said that large lakes, like canaries in a mine, can give vital early clues to what may be happening to the environment in their parts of the world and what trends may be affecting the globe.

"Beyond the ways in which large lakes are important for their own sakes, they are also extremely valuable diagnostics of changes that are imposed on them from their surroundings," said Prof. Ray Weiss of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

Their size and relative isolation make them good yardsticks of long-and short-term changes in climate, aquatic life and pollution, he said.

"Actually, the canaries have been the smaller bodies of water, which have suffered impacts sooner," Janssen said. "Now the impacts, and different ones, are hitting the Great Lakes. In terms of surface fresh water, this is the end of the line.

"In terms of oceans, they are canaries."

Each scientist came with his or her wish list of top research priorities. Janssen, a biologist, wants more money devoted to the study of water quality and the natural sources of food for fish. He noted that many commercial fisheries on the lakes have been destroyed, and much information is needed if they are to be restored.

Prof. Hans W. Paerl of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina wants to see more nutrient, sediment and "water column" studies that might help differentiate between natural and human-caused climate changes.

Proliferating exotic species such as zebra mussels, which probably entered the Great Lakes in ships' ballast water, are worrisome to the scientists.

"I don't think our research can prevent exotic species, but it can give us a better ability to predict what will happen when they show up," said Johnson of the Duluth observatory.

Deep mysteries

Talk about the problems of global warming and exotic species sometimes eclipses the other reason Johnson sees for gathering more data: exploration.

"All of us feel there are wonderful mysteries in these lakes that the public would like to know more about," he said.

For example, data on currents may help solve a mystery known to scientists and Lake Superior fishermen alike: those underwater storms that sweep the sediment from lake bottoms and tug at fishing nets, even on a dead calm day.

"We see the erosional features but have no idea how frequently they happen or how strong they are," Johnson said.

Another mystery is why Lake Superior periodically produces blooms of zooplankton, an important source of food for fish, in patterns thus far hard to predict.

"We think there are bumper-crop years and years of crashes," Johnson said. "How often and why that happens have obvious implications for fisheries management."

-- Larry Oakes is at loakes@startribune.com.

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