University of Wisconsin–Madison

Notes From The Director 2015

Safe Operating Spaces for Lakes, Young Scientists and CFL

Stephen Carpenter, Director, UW-Madison Center for Limnology. Photo courtesy of UW Communications

by Stephen Carpenter @FreshwaterSteve, Limnology News – Number 24, Fall 2015

Liminality was everywhere in 2015. Any resemblance to the word “limnology” is mere coincidence; “liminality” comes from a different root, the Latin word for “threshold.” It refers to the state of ambiguity in the middle of a transition, when the old is in flux and has not yet become the new.

Life in the liminal can be a time of creativity and experimentation. Graduate students, living in the gateway between their undergraduate experience and future career, often show bursts of creative energy that drive innovation at CFL. Examples are sprinkled throughout this newsletter. In a unique collaboration, five graduate students (Chelsey Blanke and Ali Mikulyuk from CFL, Helen Bullard and Jojin Van Winkle from Art, and Sigrid Peterson from Sociology) are exploring liminality in art and science. After meetings at Trout Lake Station (TLS) and the “Imagining Resilience” conference in Uruguay, the students embarked on co-evolving art and science projects during this academic year. Together they will investigate whether engagement with art changes science, and vice-versa.

In ecology, thresholds are doorways between sharply different kinds of ecosystems. Ecological change, whether gradual or abrupt, is central to most of the basic science at CFL. In natural resource management, thresholds bound healthy ecosystems from failing ones. In this context, thresholds outline a safe operating space for healthy natural resources. Earlier this year, CFL alumnae Elena Bennett, Reinette Biggs, and I published a new estimate of the safe operating space for the global phosphorus and nitrogen cycles. Unlike previous estimates based on ocean hypoxia, our estimates are based on water quality of the world’s lakes and suggest a much lower threshold for phosphorus runoff on the planet. As we think globally about local choices, research on safe operating spaces helps managers find strategies to maintain healthy lakes and watersheds in the face of changing global climate.

Here in Wisconsin, we’re also working on ecological thresholds, as CFL faculty, students and postdocs collaborate with UW-Stevens Point, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) and USGS to launch a new project to find a safe operating space for walleye fisheries in northern Wisconsin.

Healthy institutions also have safe operating spaces. This year the University of Wisconsin System received unprecedented budget cuts from the state combined with a cap on in-state tuition. These cuts triggered the cancellation of more than 300 courses with about 9,000 seats for students and the permanent loss of about 100 faculty and staff positions in the College of Letters & Science alone. The legislature also shifted responsibility for faculty tenure and shared governance from the state to the University system. At UW-Madison, tenure and shared governance will continue to operate as they have in the past. Although the impacts are severe, particularly for undergraduate education, the safe operating space for UW-Madison and the CFL is intact. Unfortunately the media have reported a disaster scenario for UW-Madison. Sometimes a change is not a threshold. To paraphrase a certain novelist with limnological leanings, “Reports of our collapse are greatly exaggerated.”

Nonetheless, the safe operating space for the CFL will depend increasingly on private gifts as state support for education dwindles away. CFL faculty continue to compete for agency research dollars, but superb research training programs cannot be supported by government grants alone. We are fortunate to have many friends who support our initiatives, including the projects reported in this year’s newsletter. Thanks for helping CFL live in the liminal, always moving forward to provide transformative experiences for future generations of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral limnologists.