by Sydney Widell
Mike Smale, Kevin Gauthier and I have been driving through Wisconsin’s northern forests for nearly an hour when Kevin rolls to a stop in a clearing. Ahead of us, blocking the road, is a gated checkpoint. Kevin rummages in his wallet for his access card. When he finds it, the gate swings upward, in a whir of motors and levers.
We pass beneath, and I watch the gate fall shut behind us, as our car curves back into the woods. We’ve arrived at the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center.
We follow the narrow dirt road as it rolls and dips for miles beneath a dark canopy of forest. I briefly catch a long, blue lake shining out between the trees to my left. Kevin mentions that we’ve just crossed the border into Michigan.
The research station itself is set back three miles from the entrance. The entire property is 7500 square acres, roughly 150 times the size of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Trout Lake Station, where I’ve been spending my summer.
“It’s unique to get to come up because UNDERC is pretty gated off and we’re the only crew at Trout Lake who gets to go up,” Mike says. “UNDERC is pretty remote and the fact that we have this partnership is neat.”
Kevin and Mike make this drive every Monday to take samples on two lakes that lie on UNDERC property as part of a unique partnership between the University of Notre Dame, the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
While the partnership alone is unique, there is also nothing quite like their sampling methods.
Dubbed, the “FLAMe,” it is a limnological measurement system that University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers and freshwater ecologists from Emily Stanley’s lab at the Center for Limnology have been perfecting over the last decade. FLAMe stands for Fast Limnological Automated Measurements and it allows researchers to take near real-time samples of water at the surface of a body of water. Strapped to the back of the boat, the FLAMe’s intake pipe sucks water into the system and uses a series of tubes to pass the water over sensors measuring things like turbidity, free dissolved organic matter, temperature, dissolved oxygen and the presence of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane. That water is then ejected out of the back of the boat as new water is sucked in.
It is sort of like a buoy, in that it takes constant measurements but, unlike a buoy, FLAMe runs out of a moving boat, which means that researchers can gather a lot of data over a large surface area in a very short amount of time. After all, as the researchers on station like to say, if it isn’t Fast, it’s just LAMe.
“It’s basically a system of pumps and sensors,” Kevin laughed when he explained it to me. “The idea is to drive around the lake in a criss-cross pattern to get a spatial map of how water changes across the surface of the lake.”
The lakes we are measuring today — Peter and Paul — are even further into the woods. They are the site of some iconic limnological research – from Art Hasler’s initial whole-lake experiments in the 1950s, to Steve Carpenter’s legendary trophic cascade experiments – and I feel a little awestruck to be here in person.
Next summer, UNDERC scientists will attempt to trigger an algae bloom on Peter Lake by manually loading nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen into the water. At the same time, they will observe Paul as a control.
The FLAMe data Kevin and Mike are collecting on these lakes will support that future research. In addition to data on Peter and Paul, the UNDERC researchers are hoping to gather information on many of the region’s other lakes — water bodies that range between clear and algal.
“The idea is you can look down at the surface of the water and see really evident pockets of different types of algae just by studying the surface of the lake,” Kevin said. “We’re trying to measure clear lakes all the way up to really green lakes to catch all of the different stages, leading up to the tipping point for an algae bloom.”
In lakes that lie in agricultural and urban areas, the type of nutrient loading the UNDERC researchers are going to simulate happens all the time in the form of runoff, which drives the mega algae blooms that erupt on lakes like Madison’s Lake Mendota.
“They’re hoping to measure those patterns in algae and then be able to predict when a system is about to reach that tipping point and become eutrophic, compared to a normal system,” Kevin said. “They’re hoping to detect early warning indicators of algae blooms, basically.”
By this point, we’ve reached the lake, and Kevin and Mike are struggling to lift the enormous FLAMe out of the bed of their truck and into the boat. The powerful device is snugly contained in an unassuming — but staggeringly heavy — black crate.
Mike and Kevin launch their boat and Mike switches on his laptop. The FLAMe will feed him observations as they work.
“FLAMe on?” Kevin asks, lowering his electric trawler into the water.
“FLAMe on!” Mike confirms, pushing the small whaler away from the dock.