Investment in Science Crucial to Tackling “Grand Challenges” for the Great Lakes

by Cheryl Reitan & Adam Hinterthuer
Duluth, MN – In September of 2014, fifty-eight scientists gathered to discuss the most pressing research needs in the Great Lakes region. Even though the five lakes contain nearly one-fifth of all the world’s available fresh water and supply that water to more than 35 million people across two Canadian provinces and eight U.S. states, the scientists worried that too little was known about potential changes and threats.
Now a new report, published in the Journal Limnology and Oceanography on June 15, 2017, is urging citizens, researchers, and leaders to support greater scientific attention and increased binational research funding to improve the collective ability to wisely manage this incredible resource.

Green water, like this algae bloom, near Ohio State University’s Stone Lab in Lake Erie, are a common occurrence (and threat) to water quality in the Great Lakes. Courtesy: Ohio Sea Grant

“Climate change and environmental pollution, coupled with increasing demands for water for drinking, industry, transportation, aqua- and agriculture, extraction of fossil fuels and even recreation, have created an unprecedented need for clean freshwater,” says Robert Sterner, co-author of the report and director of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“Policy makers and citizens need information from the scientific community in order to make good decisions that will protect our lakes and slow the current global freshwater crisis,” he says.
The meeting, he says, fostered important discussions that yielded. According to the report, there are five major scientific gaps in our understanding of the Great Lakes and much more research is needed for the U.S. and Canada to tackle the “grand challenges” that climate change and an increasing demand for Great Lakes water will bring.
Lake Superior, for example, is one of the most rapidly warming lakes on the planet, but scientists still don’t have a full picture of how it has responded to climate changes in the past – which makes it harder to predict what this warming means for its future.
In another example, the researchers cite the 2014 toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that got into the public drinking water supply of Toledo, Ohio. That event forced nearly a half-million residents away from their taps as they drank and bathed with bottled water for two days while authorities worked to bring safe drinking water back online. While scientists know that excess nutrients from agricultural runoff in Ohio fed to the massive bloom, the specifics needed to manage future blooms are still missing, the report’s authors say.
These examples underline a critical need for all five lakes says Jake Vader Zanden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Limnology.
“How will we address the needs of the Great Lakes and the people that depend on them, when we’re not investing in the most basic understanding of how these systems function, and how they’re changing?” he says.
In all, the group laid out five main questions where answers are needed to help guide management and conservation efforts in the Great Lakes. They are:

  1. How has this vast inland freshwater system responded to shifting climate in the past, and how will it respond in the future?
  2. What is the current status of the most important ecosystem processes, including their variability in space and time?
  3. What processes are characteristic only of large lakes, and how do the distinct habitats integrate into a whole?
  4. What are the ecosystem responses to major anthropogenic forces such as nutrients and invasive species, and are these reversible?
  5. How are societal decisions, biological systems, and lake dynamics linked and how to they impact and influence one another?

The team notes that their goals coincide with other initiatives to support data gathering and increased attention on the Great Lakes and the Earth’s freshwaters in general, as well as a national and global water crisis.
“These five lakes define the entire region, but when we examine the state of knowledge about how these lakes work, we find more questions than answers,” Sterner says.
The work was authored by an international team that has had extensive experience in the Great Lakes:
Robert W. Sterner, professor and director of the Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth.  
Peggy Ostrom, professor of integrative biology, Michigan State University;
Nathaniel E. Ostrom, professor, Department of Zoology, Michigan State University;
J. Val Klump. professor and associate dean of research, and senior director of the School of Freshwater Sciences, UW-Milwaukee;
Alan D. Steinman, professor of water resources, Grand Valley State University;
Erin A. Dreelin, assistant professor; associate director of the Center for Water Sciences, Michigan State University;
M. Jake Vander Zanden, professor, Center for Limnology and Department of Zoology, University of Wisconsin; and
Aaron T. Fisk, professor, Canada Research Chair, University of Windsor.
Robert Sterner, Director, Large Lakes Observatory, UM-Duluth. (218) 726-7926,
Jake Vander Zanden, professor, Center for Limnology, UW-Madison. (608) 262-9464,
Cheryl Reitan, University Marketing & Relations. (218) 726-8996,
A full copy of the report can be downloaded here –