What is the Experimental Lakes Area? | Great Lakes Guide
Florin Chelaru (Flickr: Link)
  • Environment and Education


    What is the Experimental Lakes Area?

Did you know that there is a large group of over 50 lakes in Northern Ontario that are used solely for scientific research?

The world is facing growing populations and a rapidly changing climate. How do we ensure the protection and stability of our freshwater ecosystems?

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) have partnered to examine environmental impacts on freshwater systems at a whole ecosystem level, helping to inform conservation measures.

What are they?

The Experimental Lakes area is a collection of 58 small lakes are located in Northwestern Ontario. Since its inception in 1968, the ELA has brought together scientists to create one of the most comprehensive and longest running data collections on freshwater lakes. These lakes are isolated from human impacts, allowing researchers to run real-world experiments in real-time.

This incredible “natural laboratory” is truly one-of-a-kind. It allows scientists to learn how all aspects of these freshwater ecosystems respond in a changing environment. Scientists can manipulate these lakes and track the response of the entire ecosystem- from atmospheric changes to changes in fish populations and physiology. Researchers can then monitor the effects of climate change and pollutants on our freshwater resources over the long term.

What are they used for?

The benefit of these lakes is that we can mimic the conditions currently seen around the world. Some of the groundbreaking research conducted at the ELA includes acid rain, water pollution, the impact of mercury on fish populations, oil spills, invasive species, and much, much more.

These assessments have helped, and continue to help, inform governments from all corners of the Earth on how to best manage our freshwater resources. These lakes are also used for educational purposes, bringing together students, professionals, and local communities- including First Nations- to share in their understanding of these ecosystems.

Together, the aim is to foster the next generation of freshwater scientists and build relationships that will help to ensure sustainable development, both in Canada and internationally. The ELA works to bridge science, government, and industry to identify and study new, emerging environmental concerns and nip them in the bud.

What can you do?

We all depend on freshwater. From simply drinking your morning coffee, to taking a shower, freshwater is a huge part of our everyday lives. Not only that, but everything that lives within these freshwater ecosystem plays a critical role.

If one small thing changes, it can have a massive effect on the rest of the lake. Temperature increases? Algae levels might increase. Algae increases? Other plants die. More decomposition leads to decreased levels of oxygen. Less oxygen means many fish and aquatic insects will die and… well, you get the idea.

“Ultimately, lakes are a reflection of everything that happens around them. Lakes are really just holes in the ground that collect water, and all of that water is very strongly affected by any of the activities that happen on the land.”
-Dr. Paterson.
Research scientist at the ELA

It is important for us to realize how our actions impact these freshwater ecosystems that are so critical to our survival. But the first step is to truly appreciate the water that we so often take for granted.



Learn more about the Experimental Lakes Area and its research projects and identify your own connection to water. Discover just how much of a role freshwater plays in our day-to-day lives and what you can do to help protect it.