High-Speed Limnology Adventure on the Mighty Mississippi

Luke Loken on the Mississippi River with the FLAMe in action. Photo: John Crawford

Luke Loken on the Mississippi River with the FLAMe in action. Photo: John Crawford

On the first day of August, at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul, Minnesota, Center for Limnology (CFL) graduate student, Luke Loken, boarded an 18-foot-long Boston Whaler and headed upstream. At the Washington Avenue Bridge, the starting line of his research adventure, he pointed the boat downriver, where his final destination lay – only two weeks, 26 lock and dams, and 900 river miles away.

The trip, financed by the United States Geological Survey’s (USGS) “Land Carbon Project,” would be the biggest test yet for a research tool designed by Loken and USGS post doctoral researcher, John Crawford (PhD, 2014). Called the FLAMe, short for “Fast Limnological Automated Measurements,” the contraption consists of a water pump, a series of pipes and tubes and $100,000-worth of sensors. As their boat moved across the surface of the Mississippi, a continuous stream of water would be sucked into the FLAMe and passed over sensors recording everything from turbidity to temperature to nitrate levels, before being discharged back into the river.

“At the heart of the FLAMe are these automated sensors that are commercially available and widely used by limnologists everywhere,” says CFL faculty member, and Loken’s advisor, Emily Stanley. “But what [researchers] usually do is park them on a buoy or put them in a particular place in a stream and they get really good data at that site over time. With the FLAMe, instead of parking these devices in one place, we bring the water to the devices and take the devices everywhere.”

Instead of datasets over long time series, says Stanley, the FLAMe produces maps over large areas. “We don’t have that spatial understanding of our ecosystem in the same way that a terrestrial ecologist does,” she says. “The FLAMe gives us a whole new way of seeing lakes and rivers that we just haven’t had before.” Continue reading

Announcing “Our Waters, Our Future” Writing Contest


Water is essential to our lives and those of future generations, but big changes, like a warming world, are bringing big challenges. Imagining positive futures for our waters and communities and sharing those visions is one way everyone can be part of the conversation to build them.

We are excited to announce the “Our Waters, Our Future” writing contest, which challenges Wisconsinites to imagine what a resilient and desirable future for water and people in the state’s south-central region could look like. The submission deadline is February 1, 2016, and the winning story will be published in Madison Magazine. Continue reading

Of Models and Math: Predicting the Future of a Watershed

by Jenny Seifert

Using a tool similar to a computer game, Melissa Motew is peering into the future.

Motew uses computer models to peer into the future. Photo" Jenny Seifert

Motew uses computer models to peer into the future. Photo” Jenny Seifert

Motew is a modeler. She uses computers and mathematics to simulate ecosystems and make sense of nature.

Her task is to shed light on what the Madison area’s environment could be like by the year 2070 and what this might mean for human well-being—how much food could we grow, how well could the land withstand floods and will we have clean lakes yet?

“We want to track what’s happening through time, so we can understand all of the changes,” says Motew.

A PhD student in the Environment and Resources program at UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute, Motew is also part of the Water Sustainability and Climate (WSC) project’s modeling team. They are simulating the future to understand possible challenges and opportunities for sustaining freshwater given the host of long-term changes affecting it, especially climate change.

The Yahara Watershed, the land area that drains into the Yahara River and lakes and includes Madison, is the project’s research specimen. The model Motew works with is like the watershed’s avatar.

Scientific models, in general, are conceptual representations of the natural world based on the scientific understanding of how nature works. Scientists create models by translating that understanding into a language of equations and computer code. After making its calculations, a model then outputs stories about what is happening or could happen in nature—details that are otherwise difficult to observe in real life.

Continue reading –>

Fish Fry Day: American Eel Caught in the Act (of Migration!)

Happy Fish Fry Day! We promise to get back to our “Fishes of Wisconsin” challenge soon, but breaking news has forced it’s way into our news cycle – for the first time ever, scientists have tracked the American eel’s migration to its spawning grounds.

The American eel. Image: USFWS

The American eel. Image: USFWS

The American eel is awesome, as we’ve explained before.  And now we know that is is even more awesome than previously believed, after researchers chronicled the breathtaking journey of a single female eel that swam more than 1,500 miles at depths sometimes exceeding 2,000 feet. We’ll let National Geographic take it from here:

Epic Eel Migration Mapped for the First Time

By Jason Bittel, National Geographic, Oct. 27, 2015

American eel lifecycle. Image: Virginia Institute for Marine Science

American eel lifecycle. Image: Virginia Institute for Marine Science

Scientists know that American eels spend most of their adult lives inland or close to the shore, because for thousands of years, that’s where people have caught them. And we know the animals spawn in the open ocean, because that’s where we find their tiny, transparent larvae. But despite decades of searching, no adult American eel (Anguilla rostrata) has ever been spotted migrating across the hundreds of miles of ocean between the animals’ adult haunts and their ancestral spawning areas.

That is, until now.

A team of Canadian scientists used satellite tags to track an adult female eel from the coast of Nova Scotia to the northern limits of the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the North Atlantic—a journey of more than 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers). The team published their results Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

“It’s pretty exciting,” says Julian Dodson, a biologist at Laval University in Quebec City and coauthor of the new study. “We’re beginning to catch a glimpse of what’s going on for the first time.”

Keep reading –>

Island Time: UW-Madison Students’ Epic Research Roadtrip

SapeloNetLate yesterday afternoon, the first van pulled out of the Hasler Lab parking lot. Loaded down with a handful of Zoology 750 grad students, and all sorts of gear – from nets to shovels to bright orange construction fencing – the van was headed to catch a ferry, one that was eighteen hours and four states away.


Why the insane overnight road trip? Well, because every two years, professors of the UW-Madison graduate course “Problems in Oceanography,” take a dozen or so students to Sapelo Island, right off the coast of Georgia for a week of field work. Students spend the first part of the semester devising research questions and planning experiments here in Madison and then head south for a stay at the University of Georgia’s Marine Institute, where they put those plans into action and enjoy island life for a week.

SapeloNet2The whole thing makes us jealous.  But if we can’t all be there we can at least follow their adventures – the students are up on Twitter and Instagram as @UWSapelo and tagging their posts with #uwsapelo15 – follow along for funny comments, beautiful pictures and, every now and then, a cool tidbit of scientific fact.

We’ll chronicle their adventure here on the blog throughout next week and can’t wait to see what they get up to. For now, there have been more than a few entertaining road trip updates:


Although the #UWSapelo15 crew has definitely taken the tweeting up a notch, when it comes to research projects, we’re not sure if anyone is ever going to top Sam Oliver crushing snails!


Dont forget – follow @UWSapelo and #uwsapelo15 on Twitter and Instagram! And well share more stories from the south soon.

Zebra Mussels Found In Lake Mendota

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: (press contacts at bottom of story)

MADISON — In the fall of 2009, a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduates made a startling discovery in the waters off the campus shoreline. Spiny water fleas, a type of invasive zooplankton believed to be suited only to cooler lakes in more northern climates, turned up in their nets as they collected samples for their lab session.

Zoology 315, the popular undergraduate limnology course, has struck again: Zebra mussels, the Great Lakes’ most infamous invasive species, have arrived in Lake Mendota.

These zebra mussels were collected from rocks just off the Hasler Lab pier. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

These zebra mussels were collected from rocks just off the Hasler Lab pier. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

While the discovery of the spiny water flea left scientists wondering how a cold-water animal was thriving in a warm-water lake, the big question surrounding zebra mussels is “what took them so long?”

“I would have predicted that they would have gotten here earlier,” says Jake Vander Zanden, a professor at UW-Madison’s Center for Limnology (CFL) and expert on aquatic invasive species. “It’s not that it’s inevitable our lakes get invaded, but we’ve known that Mendota is a good candidate for a long time.”

A zebra mussel, with it's telltale striped pattern and D-shaped shell. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

A zebra mussel, with it’s telltale striped pattern and D-shaped shell. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

Aside from being suitable zebra mussel habitat, Lake Mendota is close to many lakes that are already invaded, like Lake Wisconsin, Lake Ripley and several lakes just west of Milwaukee in Waukesha County. Lake Mendota is also popular with anglers, water skiers and anyone with a boat, which made the chance of someone accidently bringing in the invasive mussel high.

Still, says, Vander Zanden, public awareness campaigns may have bought the lake some time. Efforts by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other organizations urging people to clean their boats and not transport live bait from lake to lake may have helped keep incidents of zebra mussel introductions down.

Whatever the reason for their slower-than-expected arrival, the prolific mussel now calls Lake Mendota home and appears to be here to stay. Continue reading

Embrace the Chaos: Predictable Ecosystems May be More Fragile

MADISON, WI — When it comes to using our natural resources, human beings want to know what we’re going to get. We expect clean water every time we turn on the tap. We want beaches free of algae and bacteria on each visit. We want robust harvests of crops, fish and fuel year after year. As a result, we try to manage the use of our resources in a way that minimizes their variability. We seek a predictable “status quo.”

But a new study says that managing our environment for predictable outcomes is risky. In fact, more often than not, it backfires.

Steve Carpenter

Steve Carpenter

“By making things predictable in the short term, we make them unpredictable in the long term,” says Steve Carpenter, director of the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the report. While we may be trying to keep a system in a predictable state, he says, “we actively make things worse.”

The article was published October 5th in the online “Early Edition” of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. At the heart of the problem, says Carpenter, is the fact that, while we can cut down variability on short time frames, “variability doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else.” And, he warns, “it has to come back.”

Take, for example, our attempts at flood control on rivers. By installing levees, engineers are able to constrain flow and curb the fluctuations in water levels that once led to routine flooding of low-lying areas. These levees worked so well, that whole communities grew up in what were once floodplains. But, of course, the levees couldn’t remove all variability from the system. Sometimes a levee breaks. Sometimes a river reaches levels higher than what the levee was built to withstand. The end result is a flood that’s much more destructive than before.

“So you do get better predictability,” says Carpenter. “For many years the river stays in the levee and everything’s fine. It’s just that, every once in a while, it goes out and everything is worse.”

Carpenter and his colleagues ran a series of simple computer models looking at three human endeavors – controlling nutrient pollution in lakes, maintaining cattle production on rangelands invaded by shrubs, and sustaining harvest in a fishery.

In all cases, when they tried to control variance – by tightly controlling fish harvest or shrubs in grasslands, for example – unexpected outcomes occurred. Fish stocks collapsed at lower harvest levels. Grasslands were replaced by shrubs with even light pressure from cattle grazing.

The results are counter-intuitive. How can reduced pressure on a resource end up being bad for business? Part of the explanation, Carpenter says, is that, “the minute humans try to manage the system, they become part of the system.” And our involvement may help explain some of these unintended outcomes.

“Living systems need a certain amount of stress,” Carpenter says, noting that, as they evolved “they continually got calibrated against variability.” Just as our immune systems rely on exposure to bacteria and viruses to sharpen their skills at responding to disease, natural systems also need that kind of stimulation.

Obviously, none of this means that we shouldn’t try to responsibly and sustainably manage our natural resources. It just means that we may need to redefine acceptable levels of variability. Carpenter says that this philosophy is the hallmark of an approach called “adaptive management.” Adaptive management allows for greater natural variability in a system and encourages a diverse set of management approaches. Of course, not all of these approaches will pan out but, by exploring what does and doesn’t work in a system, resource managers can better learn how to sustain ecosystems as they change over time.

Whether the practice becomes the standard approach to managing our resources remains to be seen. But, says Carpenter, his paper should at least help people see that there’s no alternative to living with variability. “By allowing variability, learning from it, and trying alternatives that seem sensible and safe, we can navigate change” he says. “When we make complex systems too predictable, we set the stage for collapse.”

MEDIA CONTACT: hinterthuer@wisc.edu, 608.262.3014


Will New Maps Bring Higher-Resolution to Great Lakes Restoration Efforts?

The CFL’s Pete McIntyre is involved in a new Great Lakes mapping effort that may help guide future restoration projects. Details below:

ANN ARBOR—University of Michigan researchers and their colleagues have created exceptionally detailed maps of five Great Lakes recreational activities and say the information can be used to help prioritize restoration projects.

Combinations of recreational use and cumulative stress for Great Lakes counties. Images courtesy: Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping (GLEAM) project

Combinations of recreational use and cumulative stress for Great Lakes counties. Images courtesy: Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping (GLEAM) project

They mapped places used for sport fishing, recreational boating, birding, beach use and park visits for all five Great Lakes and included sites in both the United States and Canada. The recreational sites were then compared to the research team’s previously published “threat maps,” which show the location of 34 Great Lakes environmental stressors.

Taken together, the maps showing intensity of recreational use as well as environmental stress provide federal and regional officials with an unprecedented scientific foundation upon which to sustainably manage the Great Lakes, where current restoration efforts exceed $1.5 billion, the researchers conclude.

“Restoration priorities are typically based on the evidence for environmental degradation without explicitly accounting for the benefits people receive from ecosystems, which include recreational opportunities,” said lead researcher David Allan, professor emeritus of aquatic sciences at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. Keep reading –>

The Study, Science & Stories of Our Inland Waters