by Adam Hinterthuer
Last year, CFL graduate student, Emily Whitaker, found herself in an unusual location for a limnologist – out on a frozen lake doing fieldwork.
That might sound funny, but it’s true – the vast majority of research on freshwater ecosystems occurs during the non-frozen months of the year. When Whitaker wrapped up work on the ice of northern Wisconsin’s South Sparkling Bog and headed back to Trout Lake Station (TLS) each night, she had a much quieter experience than the bustling crowd of students that fill every cabin on station during the summer.
A lot of this tendency toward warm-water research “has to do with the growing season and the fact that what we’re often interested in are processes like algal blooms or fish spawning that take place in the spring and summer,” says CFL assistant professor, Hilary Dugan.
What’s more, she adds, summer field work falls in line with university schedules. With so many students using their summer break to do their fieldwork, it’s no wonder that researchers like Whitaker feel left out in the cold.
But, if Dugan, Whitaker and other CFL colleagues have their way, that warm-weather bias may soon change.
Dugan, along with TLS research scientist, Noah Lottig, was recently awarded a “UW 2020” grant from UW-Madison’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. These grants are part of a larger initiative to, according to the university, “support highly innovative and groundbreaking research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison over the next five years.”
Dugan and Lottig’s award is titled “Full Season Science in the Northwoods” and the money from it is supporting graduate students like Whitaker, as well as allowing the team to purchase equipment like survival suits and an amphibious ATV called an “Argo” that will allow researchers to safely get out on the ice even during the “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall.
“Trout Lake Station is full of boats and trailers and trucks and none of those are useful in winter,” says Dugan. “We didn’t really have the right tools to send faculty and students up there to safely do winter field work.”
Safety is a big concern, says Lottig, but sometimes the issue is one of “just plain accessibility.” Lottig says he’s excited for the new equipment, especially the Argo, because it will allow staff at TLS to “get out there when we need to get out there regardless of conditions.” By comparison, station snowmobiles have been nearly burried in deep snow or thick slush in recent winters, he says.
For her part of this project, Whitaker is launching an experiment on South Sparkling Bog, where she is exploring how the changes in ice cover and snowfall that are predicted in climate change models might impact lakes in winter. Whitaker is hiring an on-call snow removal service to head out after every snowfall and, using industrial snowblowers and a plow attached to the new Argo, clear the ice.
By keeping the surface of the frozen bog snow-free, Whitaker says, sunlight will shine into the water column. She’ll then drill holes into the ice and take water samples to see how communities of tiny plants and animals called phytoplankton and zooplankton react to their brighter winter existence.
“A similar study did this snow removal experiment, but they only did it at the end of the snow season,” Whitaker says, noting that, in the places where those researchers cleared off all of the snow, “everything under the ice died because it was so shade-adapted that it couldn’t handle the sunlight.”
Whitaker believes plankton communities in her study may either become “light adapted” and thrive in the new conditions, or species of plankton that usually thrive in the fall will last longer in the season.
The take home message is we just don’t know what will happen because there’s still so much to learn about our lakes and bogs in winter. “That’s why I’m collecting all the data I physically can, because it’s unclear what will happen,” she says. “The more data, the better.”
Being able to add information to the underlying science of lakes in winter is an exciting opportunity, Whitaker says. But she’s equally excited about another perk of winter limnology – no mosquitos!