Thursday, July 30, 2009

Northland Students study effects of climate change on local lakes and loons

Andrew East and Josh Smith, both seniors at Northland College in Ashland, Wisc. majoring in natural resources, are working as Sigurd Olson Loon Research Fellows in the Trout Lake watershed during the summer of 2009. These fellowship positions serve a multi-agency research project, combining the goals of the Wisconsin DNR, USGS, the LoonWatch program and a Wisconsin Focus on Energy Environmental and Economic Research and Development initiative aimed at studying climate change. The fellowships are offered through the LoonWatch program at Northland’s Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute.

Dr. Michael W. Meyer, Wisconsin DNR ecological toxicologist and principle investigator, explained the goals of the study, “The current loon project that Andy and Josh are working on is evaluating the impacts of climate change on loon distribution in Wisconsin and asking whether future climatic conditions in the North may undermine some of the habitat quality for loons in the state.”

East and Smith are currently monitoring 28 lakes in the Trout Lake watershed region, each of which they visit at least once a week. The specifics of their research varies, “Right now we’re looking for chick survival,” commented Smith while surveying Trout Lake by boat, “Up to this point, what we’ve been doing is coming out and checking on the birds, watching how they interact with one another, watching where they go, which lakes they’re on, that kind of thing. Now we’re changing the dynamics a little, we’re looking at the success rate of nests, chick survival, we’re doing a lot more GPS coordinates for where the nests are and we’re looking at the aquatic vegetation in the nesting areas. And all of this ties into the larger project goals which are associating loon use and nutrient levels in lakes with climate change, so it’s important stuff, and it’s pretty cool to be a part of it.”

The data collected by East and Smith is then added to other databases, such as USGS hydrological models of the Trout Lake watershed, and all of this is linked with larger climate models, allowing scientists to predict conditions for the lakes 20, 50, 80, or even 100 years into the future.

“Two research teams are looking at loon use on lakes for this project,” explained Stacy Craig, LoonWatch Coordinator, “Kevin Kenow, a USGS research wildlife biologist, is looking at loons at the southern extent of their breeding range and Josh and Andrew are part of the team in the Northern Highlands Forest area. The combined efforts of these groups will yield a lot of important data about loons in Wisconsin, especially about which lakes they choose to nest on, and about what we can expect in the future.”

The data so far is confirming certain trends. “It appears that loons are closely tied to a lake’s trophic status, which is the level of nutrients in the water,” Meyer explained, “High trophic status (eutrophic) lakes have less water quality and we’ve documented a lower use by loons. Now the question to ask as part of the project here is whether the lakes in the Trout Lake watershed may become more eutrophic if the climate changes, and if so will that reduce the quality of these lakes for loon use. It’s a big question because the current core of the Wisconsin breeding population is right here and so if we see that the lakes may become less suitable for loons it would be a predictor that the population itself may undergo an alteration because of climate change.”

Being able to participate in such a study as undergraduate students is a rare opportunity for East and Smith, as many institutions without a graduate program do not offer fellowship programs. The fellowships are jointly funded and managed by Wisconsin DNR and LoonWatch and they are partially funded by a Wisconsin Focus on Energy Grant, derived from the Environmental and Economic Research and Development Program.

Their research also expands beyond the climate change study, raising loon awareness and education in the area through LoonWatch and adding data to separate projects by the DNR on mercury exposure levels in the loon population, the impact of Botulism E., and the increase in shore-land development. Each of these are longer running projects which prove useful for public policy and future studies down the line.

Overall, Meyer said, “Andy and Josh have done Northland proud. We’ve had a variety of skill levels in interns when they arrive here and these guys were ready to go. Little direction, little instruction, we meet once a week and they’re working independently the entire time. It’s been great, they’ve brought a level of skill to the table that I was happy to see.”

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