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The Gem of Canadian Science that Harper Killed

Experimental Lakes Area was world famous; its findings might have saved Canada billions.

Andrew Nikiforuk 23 May

Andrew Nikiforuk, author Empire of the Beetle, first wrote about the ELA in 1992.

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One of many experimental lakes in the ELA that researchers used to uncover important insights about how fresh water ecosystems work. Photo: DFO.

Over the Victoria Day weekend Canadians lost another vital national institution that quietly stood on guard for the nation's 4 million lakes.

Just as citizens flocked to their cottages and launched their boats, the government of Stephen Harper pulled the plug on Canada's greatest freshwater defender and scientific achievement: the Experimental Lakes Area.

And though its muzzled scientists haven't been able to talk about the program's impressive research in recent years without Ottawa's approval, this uniquely Canadian endeavor both changed and educated the world. It also drove global public policy on watershed protection.

In a move that stunned and appalled scientists around the world the Harper government laid off as many as 40 scientists associated with the legendary program working out the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Winnipeg's office.

According to Ottawa's tiresome newspeak, the program no longer "aligned with the department's mandate and is not responding to our research priorities."

The killing of the program is the latest in a series of coordinated attacks on environmental science and the gutting of most of the nation's environmental legislation. It not only trashes Canada's international reputation but confirms the Harper government's pathological hatred for science of any kind.

In fact the country has now officially entered a Dark Age for science. After spending $2.5 million renovating the Arctic Institute of North America's Kluane Research Station, the Harper government just eliminated the funding for the global leader in climate change and boreal mammal research. It also provided federal Arctic researchers at a recent Montreal conference with Iraqi-like minders to control their comments. Nature, one of the world's foremost science magazines, has written editorials about the muzzling of Canadian scientists.

In this new political order of attacks on science and environmentalists, the closure of the ELA program takes on special significance. The irrational decision strikes most scientists as a feat of colossal stupidity, economic folly and ideological backwardness.

ELA said to be 'best in the world'

"The ELA is, in my opinion, the best known freshwater research facility in the world. You can be at any aquatics conference in Europe or Asia or anywhere and you don't even have to say Experimental Lakes Area -- just ELA -- and everyone knows what you are talking about," John Smol told The Tyee. Smol holds the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change at Queen's University and is recognized as one of Canada's most honored scientists.

"My first reaction was, 'You have got to be kidding,' which fairly quickly moved to 'Why am I surprised?' This is just another attack on the war against the environment."

Ragnar Elmgren, a distinguished Swedish ecologist, called the closing of the ELA "an act of wanton destruction of the scientific value" that would leave "Canada much less prepared to tackle the important challenges of managing its freshwaters under climate change."

Added Elmgren in an email to Canadian politicians: "This is the kind of act one expects from the Taliban in Afganistan, not from the government of a civilized and educated nation."

Jim Elser, a highly respected aquatic scientist at Arizona State University, described the destruction of the ELA both pennywise and pound foolish in an email. "It's not an example of good governance." The world offers very few places where scientists can study whole ecosystems in a remote location aided by an excellent research facility as well as decades of baseline data, adds Elser. "ELA is completely and totally unique and unmatched in offering all three."

"I was pretty shocked," added Harvard University aquatic sciences professor Elsie Sunderland in an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press. "This is one of the foremost research projects and places to do research in the world. To have it shut down is just appalling. It's just embarrassing."

What the ELA did

The ELA was to water ecology what the supercollider is to physics. Here's a little history about the Canadian people have just lost and why every Canadian should be alarmed. For more than 44 years the modest program (it costs but $2 million a year) located near Kenora, Ontario, conducted ground breaking research on acid rain, toxic metals, phosphates, algal blooms, climate change and mercury that eventually strengthened water pollution legislation around the world.

The project not only broadened the world's horizons on water with more than 750 peer reviewed studies and 120 graduate theses, but provided hard data on the impact of industrial activities on the world’s most critical resource. The unique research program began in 1966 with a novel idea by fisheries scientist Waldo Johnson. Confronted with explosive and deadly blooms of algae in Lake Erie, Johnson proposed polluting several small lakes in the Canadian shield to figure what was going on and why.

At the time scientists didn't know if phosphates from soaps and fertilizers or nitrogen or carbon caused the lake killing blooms. After Winnipeg's Freshwater Institute located a collection of unique lakes with good water chemistry and few groundwater connections, the scientists got to work.

They started by adding carbon to Lake 227 which disproved the detergent industry's theory on the origin of algal blooms. Next researchers divided Lake 226 with a plastic curtain. They added nitrogen and carbon to both basins, but phosphorus as well to one of them. The half that got loaded with phosphorus exploded into a sea of green soup of algae and became "the most photographed lake in science." Shortly afterwards Canada banned phosphates from detergents, and most other first- world countries soon followed its lead.

Another experiment funded by the now defunct Alberta's Oilsands Environmental Review Project (AOERP) changed the global politics of acid rain. In the 1970s, AOERP had concerns about the impact of sulphur oxide emissions and the resulting acid rain on lakes in the tar sands area in northeastern Alberta.

Schindler's legacy

Ecologist David Schindler, who energetically led the ELA for more than two decades, convinced the group to fund ELA to study the issue. AOERP funded the acid rain work until the federal government finally recognized acid rain as a problem in 1978.

In 1985 the ELA again made headlines with publication of the research, which proved that that acidification can damage a lake's food chain at a pH level of 6.0, 10 times less acidic than that previously assumed. The studies showed that acid rain starved lake trout by killing smaller organisms that made up their main food supply. It reduced a lake’s biodiversity by as much as one third before reaching the level of acidity that previous studies assumed the damage began. ELA experiments also proved that damage from acid rain to lakes could be reversed, counter to main stream scientific opinion at the time.

Since then the project has continued to make waves with "big picture" science that often reveals consequences and impacts on pollution on ecosystems that small scale experiments can't. At Lake 260, for example, scientists added synthetic hormones from birth control pills at concentrations found downstream of wastewater outfalls, to test the effects on aquatic organisms. Within two years all of the male fish had been feminized, and reproduction ceased. Fish recovered once the hormone additions ceased.

Researchers stocked Lake 375 with farmed fish to gauge the impacts of aquaculture. They added cadmium, a common pollutant from smelters, to Lake 382 to determine if regulations were tough enough to protect water life. They created small model reservoirs, proving that hydroelectric dams released greenhouse gases and caused mercury to increase in fish.

In one the ELA's most ambitious experiments, researchers added tiny amounts of specially labelled mercury (about a sixth of a teaspoon) to Lake 658 and its watershed for seven years in a row to determine if direct inputs from air pollution, or runoff from wetlands or forests caused the most damage to fish. The METALLICUS study found mercury deposited directly to the water did the most damage, entering fish quickly after being added to the lake. Moreover the findings proved the efficacy of stringent air pollution controls on mercury spewing coal-fired plants.

Money saving research, cut

Recent ELA research on the importance of nitrogen pollution in producing algal blooms could save billions of dollars in clean-up costs. Research from the study proved that focusing on phosphate controls as opposed to nitrogen will end algal blooms at far less cost. For the huge Baltic Sea alone, the cost saving is estimated at nearly 3 billion Euros.

The future of proposed studies on nanoparticles and oil sands contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) may now be dead. "There were some troubling signs that toxic nanoparticles of silver could go through biological membranes," says Schindler.

But the Harper government apparently doesn't want you to know that truth. Nor does it want Canadians to learn about what role oil sands pollutants such as PAHs might play in fish deformities in Lake Athabasca or cancers in Fort Chip. "Politicians have never understood what the ELA does or why it's important," says Schindler from his cottage near Brisco, British Columbia. "We are losing an opportunity to improve the public's scientific literacy on water." He adds that "democracy, to be effective, needs to have an informed electorate."

In this regard the full scale assault on science funding and scientific freedom in Canada makes the country look increasing like another sorry Arab oil exporter. The sheiks, a group as fundamentalist in their orientation as Harper's Tories, don't like science either.

As molecular biologist Rana Dajani explains in a 2011 Nature editorial, the political and religious environment in most Arab states currently "fails to sustain creativity, curiosity and striking out into the unknown -- all of which are essential for science to flourish."

And that's where Harper is taking Canada: back to an Arab winter.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

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