Canada Establishes the Experimental Lakes Area Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Experimental Lakes Area was established in response to concern over the degenerating state of the lower Great Lakes. Its primary purpose was to facilitate research on the effects of eutrophication on lake ecosystems.

Summary of Event

In 1965, concern over the state of the lower Great Lakes led to elaborate responses in both the United States and Canada. In Canada, the Fisheries Research Board Fisheries Research Board, Canadian in the Department of Fisheries and Forestry established the Eutrophication Section in its Freshwater Institute. This section was to study eutrophication Eutrophication , the excessive supply of nutrients to a body of water, which results in excessive growth of organisms, especially some species of algae, and ultimately in a decrease of oxygen as organisms die and decompose. The studies were to be carried out at several levels: in the laboratory, where the toxicity of chemicals and the bioassay potential of freshwater organisms was to be tested; in small lakes, where the biological effect and persistence of excessive nutrients was to be determined; in lakes of various types, where the effect of human and natural impacts under differing conditions was to be determined; and in the lower Great Lakes themselves, where the lakes’ condition was to be monitored directly. Canada;environmental research Experimental Lakes Area, Canadian Environmental policy;Canada Ecology [kw]Canada Establishes the Experimental Lakes Area (1968) [kw]Experimental Lakes Area, Canada Establishes the (1968) Canada;environmental research Experimental Lakes Area, Canadian Environmental policy;Canada Ecology [g]North America;1968: Canada Establishes the Experimental Lakes Area[09550] [g]Canada;1968: Canada Establishes the Experimental Lakes Area[09550] [c]Environmental issues;1968: Canada Establishes the Experimental Lakes Area[09550] [c]Government and politics;1968: Canada Establishes the Experimental Lakes Area[09550] [c]Science and technology;1968: Canada Establishes the Experimental Lakes Area[09550] Schindler, David W. Johnson, W. E. Fee, E. J. Stainton, M. P.

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) was created to give investigators a group of small lakes in which to carry out nutrient-addition experiments. The chosen lakes had to have a history of minimal artificial eutrophication, and there had to be a good chance they would remain undisturbed (except for the experimental manipulations) for the duration of the study; in addition, the area in which they occurred had to be reasonably accessible to investigators. A large group of such lakes was found in western Ontario, thirty-five miles from Kenora, Ontario. In 1968, the ELA was established and forty-six small lakes in seventeen drainage basins were reserved for eutrophication studies. In 1969 and 1970, field-research facilities were completed, and in June of 1969, artificial eutrophication of the first lake was begun.

The initial mission of ELA studies was to follow the impact of nutrient addition to lakes, but investigators quickly branched into other problems. To establish a baseline for future studies, the characteristics of the lakes before experimentation were determined. Surveys were carried out to establish the distribution of light, temperature, oxygen, nutrient, phytoplankton (small, free-floating, photosynthetic organisms), and zooplankton (small, free-floating, nonphotosynthetic organisms). The distributions were related to the depth, size, turnover time (roughly the time it takes for the volume of water in the lake to be replaced), and other characteristics of the lakes.

The methodology of limnology (the study of lakes and ponds) was explored in depth during the early stages of ELA studies. Methods for measuring dissolved inorganic carbon (important in acid-base relationships), the biomass of microplankton (essentially the total living mass of the very small, free-floating organisms), phosphate concentrations, nitrogen fixation (the process by which nitrogen gas from the atmosphere is converted to a form useable by plants and algae), gas-exchange rates, and many other parameters were explored and refined. Radioactive tracers were developed as experimental tools to follow heavy metals through lake ecosystems. Experiments that used large enclosures of various kinds within lakes—at times when an entire lake was too large for the methods available—were pioneered in the ELA.

A second major concern of ELA studies was the effect of acid rain on fish, crustaceans, and phyto- and zooplankton in lakes. The interactions of acidity with heavy metals and nitrogen fixation were also studied. Branching out from their lake studies, ELA scientists explored the effects of acid precipitation on wetlands such as sphagnum bogs.

From the beginning, ELA investigators monitored undisturbed lakes at regular intervals. This effort contributed a background against which the changes in the experimental lakes could be measured, but there were occasional unplanned benefits as well. The effects of a windstorm and subsequent forest fire in the watershed of two of the lakes could be better understood because measurements from before the disturbance were available. Perhaps the greatest value of monitoring undisturbed lakes and their watersheds was the contribution the data made toward understanding changes brought about by the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, thinning of the ozone layer, and other human-caused effects. Without the continuous monitoring of undisturbed lakes, it would have been impossible to separate the effects caused by human intervention from those resulting from natural fluctuations.





The ELA of Canada was established in 1968 to explore the eutrophication of entire small lakes in the hope that the results could be used to manage eutrophication in larger, more important lakes. The possibility that very large and very small lakes might be so different that what happened in one might tell little about what occurred in the other was not lost on the initial investigators. Despite this and other questions, the area was established and studies continued for more than two decades. Much was learned in those studies about the natural functions of lakes, as well as about the impact of human intervention. The ELA studies rank with the research of Frank Bormann and Gene Likens into forest ecosystems around Hubbard Brook, New Hampshire, in demonstrating the wisdom of Arthur Tansley’s suggestion that the study of entire ecosystems is essential to an understanding of the natural world.


Two of the most important things demonstrated by the studies in the Canadian ELA were the requirement for long-term studies to understand the impact of humans on their environment and the necessity of doing the studies in as natural a situation as possible. Long-term studies provide evidence for the natural variation against which human impact must be measured. Studies of perturbations of natural systems, while exceptionally complex and sometimes difficult to interpret, placed the system’s responses in a realistic context impossible to replicate in the laboratory.

Many environmental changes blamed on, or credited to, humans were actually shown to have been caused by natural fluctuations of the environment. Some effects attributed to acid rain, for example, were shown to be the results of natural fluctuation. Human activity was credited at one time with an increase of precipitation in the American West, a belief that encouraged farming in the area and eventually led to the Dust Bowl; such claims would never have been made if the long-term fluctuations in precipitation on the Great Plains had been understood.

On the other hand, claims that all the effects of acid rain, the thinning ozone layer, and other environmental changes were due entirely to natural fluctuations can be laid to rest with careful long-term studies. The potential contribution of such studies, and of the ELA studies in particular, to understanding the impact of global warming can scarcely be overstated. Studies published in 1990 showed that average air and lake temperatures were 2 degrees Celsius higher, the ice-free season was three weeks longer, and fires burned more frequently and extensively in the 1980’s than at the beginning of the study in the late 1960’s. It was expected that continued ELA studies (and those at Hubbard Brook) would continue to be invaluable in determining the effects of climatic change, and that they might even be helpful in suggesting adjustments to, or ways to mitigate the effects of, such changes.

In the studies carried out in the ELA, earlier principles thought to have been verified in the simulated context of a laboratory were demonstrated to be imprecise or actually incorrect in a whole-lake context. This did not mean that laboratory exploration, even of complex systems, was without value. In fact, some questions about complex systems such as lakes can best be explored, at least initially, in the simpler context of the laboratory. The studies at the ELA were, however, able to show that laboratory conclusions must be checked in the more complex arena of whole ecosystems, and that these conclusions can often be tempered by field observation and experimentation. As the importance of a lake’s interaction with its watershed became better understood, studies began to address entire lake-watershed ecosystems.

One of the early concerns of the ELA founders was whether conclusions drawn from whole-lake studies of small lakes, which are logistically amenable to such studies, could be extrapolated to apply to large lakes such as the Great Lakes, which are generally of greater importance to humankind but not so amenable to whole-lake studies. Results of ELA studies contributed extensively to other studies using enclosures of various kinds within lakes. Calibration of enclosure results with those from whole-lake studies enhanced the value of such enclosure studies in larger lakes in which whole-lake studies were logistically impossible.

The determination that lake size was an important variable in a lake’s behavior led to the recognition of a gap in the size spectrum of well-studied lakes. Studies on the Great Lakes gave sound information on the behavior of very large lakes, and the ELA studies contributed information on very small lakes, but lakes of an intermediate size were not so thoroughly studied.

To remedy this situation, Canada in the 1980’s established another group of experimental lakes north and slightly west of the ELA. Called the Northwest Ontario Lake Size Series (NOLSS), these lakes were of various sizes and filled the gap between the well-studied Great Lakes and the small lakes studied by the ELA. Information gathered from the ELA had demonstrated the value of such experimental lakes, and the establishment of NOLSS was a strong endorsement of ELA research.

Though the impetus for the establishment of the ELA was a practical concern—the increasing pollution of the Great Lakes—the research done in the ELA remained one of very few examples of research into entire ecosystems. ELA research was also unusual for having been carried out over a period of time long enough to record natural fluctuations in ecosystem characteristics. Along with the Hubbard Brook research, the ELA studies demonstrated the necessity of studying entire ecosystems for long periods of time in order to understand such systems. Canada;environmental research Experimental Lakes Area, Canadian Environmental policy;Canada Ecology

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fee, E. J., and R. E. Hecky. “Introduction to the Northwest Ontario Lake Size Series (NOLSS).” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 49 (1992): 2434-2444. A report on the establishment of NOLSS. Contains considerable information on the ELA, its accomplishments, and the connection between the two experimental lake areas. Includes graphs and a map, as well as many references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, W. E., and J. R. Vallentyne. “Rationale, Background, and Development of Experimental Lake Studies in Northwestern Ontario.” Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada 28 (February, 1971): 123-128. A history of the ELA written just after its establishment, one of the best summaries of early ELA history. All fourteen articles of the issue are devoted to the ELA. The four issues of this journal which are based primarily on work in the ELA and NOLSS are the best source of in-depth information on the history and work at the ELA. Illustrations, tables, graphs, and extensive references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGucken, William. Lake Erie Rehabilitated: Controlling Cultural Eutrophication, 1960’s-1990’s. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 2000. Study of the eutrophication of Lake Erie and the Canadian and American response to that eutrophication. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schindler, David W. “Detecting Ecosystem Responses to Anthropogenic Stress.” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 44, supplement 1 (1987): 6-25. A summary of results from ELA and other studies regarding human-caused environmental change. Also includes a good summary of aspects of ELA history. Includes illustrations, tables, graphs, and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Effects of Acid Rain on Freshwater Ecosystems.” Science 239 (January 8, 1988): 149-157. A summary of research on acid rain as of 1988. Includes many references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Evolution of the Experimental Lakes Project.” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 37 (March, 1980): 313-319. A summary of the first decade of research in the ELA, part of an entire issue devoted to the ELA. Illustrations, tables, graphs, and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Experimental Approaches to Limnology: An Overview.” Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada 30 (October, 1973): 1409-1413. An outline of early methodological and other work in the ELA. Most of the remaining thirteen articles of the issue are related to the ELA. Includes illustrations, tables, graphs, and extensive references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Whole-Lake Experiments at the Experimental Lakes Area.” In Ecosystem Experiments: Scope 45, edited by Harold A. Mooney, Ernesto Medina, David W. Schindler, Ernst-Detlef Schulze, and Brian H. Walker. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991. A brief history of the research at the ELA and its importance. References and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schindler, David W., et al. “Effects of Climatic Warming on Lakes of the Central Boreal Forest.” Science 250 (November, 16, 1990): 967-970. A brief scientific report on an ELA contribution to the study of the greenhouse effect. The references and notes supply information on the ELA research, including the names and contributions of many of the participants.

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