FEDERAL GRANT HELPS RESEARCHERS STUDY COMPLEX RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN HUMANS AND LAKE ERIE
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Researchers across a variety of disciplines – from aquatic ecology to social work – are set to use a $1.4 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation earmarked for studying the relationship between humans and Lake Erie.
The grant goes to 16 scientists who will study how a wide range of factors – from the construction of homes along the lake front to the introduction of invasive species – affect the health of Lake Erie and how changes in the lake's health affect human activities. The researchers represent various disciplines including agricultural economics, civil and biological engineering, physics and geography.
At the grant's core is biocomplexity, a buzzword used to describe the many layers that make up an ecosystem, and how those layers interact with and affect each other.
"We're essentially studying the dynamics of linked systems," said David Culver, the principal investigator on the grant and a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State. He and his colleagues will spend the next four years creating complex mathematical models that describe the behavior of large lakes, from what's in them to what surrounds them. Most of the data will come from Lake Erie, but Culver said that the models could apply to any large lake in the world.
"We want to get at the right questions about the interactions between humans and natural systems," he said, adding that the group will study the lake's physical, biological and human systems and how these systems impact each other.
"We'll start with a very simple model, one that considers the lake and human activities related to the lake in a single dimensional model," Culver said. "And then we'll add layers of spatial and temporal complexity that will describe the intricate relationships among these systems."
The team hopes to create detailed models that shed light on issues such as the "dead zone" in the middle of Lake Erie – an area with seasonally depleted oxygen levels and the long-term effects of human activity on fish stocks and rapid lakeside development.
These models aren't meant to be unique to Lake Erie.
"We want to learn about the kinds of dynamics that this and other large lakes experience," he said. "We're just taking advantage of the fact that, in contrast to all other Great Lakes, we've got several decades' worth of data on Lake Erie, as it's gone through some major shifts in the last 35 years."
Those shifts range from lakeside industries dumping toxic waste and nutrients into the water in the 1960s and 1970s to the introduction of zebra mussels in the mid-1980s and the ensuing change in the lake's biological structure due to that infestation.
"People wanted little to do with the lake 20 to 30 years ago because it was such a degraded ecosystem," Culver said. "But successful efforts to clean Lake Erie in the late '80s and early '90s brought people back. They fished, boated, built houses along the shores.
"Human influence also brought zebra mussels to the Great Lakes in the mid-80s," he continued. "While these exotics helped to clear the water, they also wreaked havoc on native fish populations and habitat.
"Put simply, one problem is that when Lake Erie improves – as the water gets clearer – people get interested in using it again. So they love it to death. Property values skyrocket, new homes get built, the watershed gets paved and nutrients and other pollution wash into the lake. Ultimately lake activities lose value, as does land around the lake."
Interactions between physics, biology, chemistry and human activities determine how lake ecosystems shift.
"We want to understand the dynamics of the players that cause these shifts, and ultimately how to protect the interests of lakes and the humans that use them," Culver said. "Understanding these complex interactions requires an interdisciplinary research effort. This research represents a truly collaborative effort among researchers from eight different departments on campus, in addition to several researchers from other research institutions."
Co-principal investigators, all with Ohio State, on the grant include Elena Irwin, department of agricultural, environmental and development economics; Keith Bedford, civil and environmental engineering and geodetic science; Alan Randall, chair of the department of agricultural, environmental and development economics; and Jeffrey Reutter, director of the Center for Lake Erie Area Research. The other 11 researchers involved in the grant are also from Ohio State, Kent State University and Limno-Tech, Inc., an environmental consulting firm.