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A Growing Toolbox

New grant will greatly enhance monitoring of lakes at research field stations.

For a musician, new instruments bring uneasy weeks of adjusting. For a scientist, they bring sleepless nights of hatching research ideas. Scientific instruments can sit on a lab bench or at the surface of a lake and are tools researchers use to understand our world.

New instruments are on their way thanks to a National Science Foundation grant which will enhance research infrastructure at College of Biological Sciences field stations Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve and Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories. James Cotner, a professor in CBS and colleagues, including Timothy Griffis, Forest Isbell, and Lesley Knoll, will put the new tools to work exploring factors that impact the movement — or flux — of greenhouse gases between freshwater lakes and the atmosphere.

Cotner dubs the new tools, which will include semi-permanent structures (e.g. towers, buoys) for monitoring and portable instruments, the “Cadillac” of monitoring. If all goes to plan, monitoring will be underway by spring at Cedar Bog Lake at Cedar Creek about an hour north of the cities and at Lake Itasca and Elk Lake near the headwaters of the Mississippi.

Although carbon dioxide and methane are dominant greenhouse gases, scientists still have a lot to learn about factors that contribute to their fluxes in aquatic systems. The new equipment will monitor changes in these two gases at an extremely high resolution. Cotner is especially excited to take a closer look at what happens when the ice goes out in spring. Changing patterns of ice melt could fuel additional exchanges of potent greenhouse gases with the atmosphere.

Researchers are curious how elevated levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere might impact aquatic life — from algae to microbial communities. Fairly long-term measurements exist exploring impacts of increased carbon dioxide and ocean acidification in saltwater, but parallel measurements do not exist in freshwater.

From international collaborations to neighborhood impacts, this project has broad potential. Itasca and Cedar Creek are part of The GLEON Network — a group of researchers that monitor lakes around the globe. Researchers will compare high-resolution data from these stations with our neighbors in Wisconsin and around the world to assess patterns. The project will increase collaboration with tribal colleges near Itasca and bring tremendous opportunities for undergraduates to explore the data and use the instruments in their courses.

For now, Cotner is eager to get the buoys in the water and begin collecting data. He describes the addition of the instruments as, “A wonderful scaffolding on which I can hang multiple other ideas for proposals.”  –Claire Wilson


October, 2017