‘Crazy time’ — UWindsor joins Canadian fight against freshwater threats

University of Windsor scientist Katelynn Johnson, research and operations director with RAEON, locates a high-tech monitoring buoy in Lake Erie near Leamington on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. PHOTO BY DAN JANISSE /Windsor Star

Trevor Wilhelm | The Windsor Star

Flooding, droughts, and zombie fires — Canada could be in for another rough ride this summer. 

“It’s a crazy time,” said Aaron Fisk, a University of Windsor professor and Canada Research Chair in Changing Great Lakes Ecosystems.

“Precipitation changes associated with climate change are leading to flooding and drought. That can vary year to year, month to month in different areas.”

With threats to the freshwater ecosystems that prevent wildfires, produce energy, and supply our drinking water inching toward crisis levels, the University of Windsor has joined a national research partnership to fight back.  

Todd Leadley, left, a field technician with RAEON, and Aaron Fisk, a University of Windsor research chair, prepare to drop a high-tech monitoring buoy in Lake Erie near Leamington on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. DAN JANISSE/Windsor Star PHOTO BY DAN JANISSE /Windsor Star

UWindsor is among nine universities across Canada that have teamed up through the Global Water Futures Observatories (GWFO). 

“We don’t have the instruments out there to really monitor this stuff and provide real-time data,” said Fisk. “We need to understand these processes better as they change quickly. And we have to be able to predict changes into the future.” 

The Global Water Futures Observatories (GWFO), a freshwater observation network with research stations across Canada, was established in 2016 by the University of Saskatchewan. 

UWindsor’s Realtime Aquatic Ecosystem Observation Network (RAEON), an already existing partnership of several Ontario universities, has joined forces with it to go after increased funding. 

The partnering universities hosted events across Canada this week celebrating the national launch of the GWFO. 

“Working in the Great Lakes is not trivial,” said Fisk, also a science director at RAEON. “These are large water bodies.” 

“So really that’s what we did for Global Water Futures, we brought that large Great Lakes component to it. The other thing it did was bring researchers together from different universities.

“Now we are the largest freshwater research network in Canada, and one of the largest in the world.” 

University of Windsor research scientists Katelynn Johnson and Aaron Fisk prepare to drop a high-tech monitoring buoy in Lake Erie near Leamington on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. PHOTO BY DAN JANISSE /Windsor Star

The partnership recently secured a $40.4 million grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Fisk said the grant will pay for staff, support research stations around Canada, and fund the maintenance and replacement of equipment until 2029.  

“It allows us to collaborate with other universities across Canada,” said Fisk. “Now RAEON is providing instruments for places like the Yukon lakes, Algonquin. We’ve had a request from Quebec. So it’s expanding our footprint to all of Canada.” 

Even in the Great Lakes regions, where raising alarms about a freshwater crisis might seem like hyperbole, Fisk said there are fluctuating water levels and harmful algal blooms. 

Earlier this week, Fisk and fellow researchers Todd Leadley and Katelynn Johnson set out from Leamington Marina aboard the research vessel RV Haffner to deploy one of half a dozen buoys that collect data in real time. 

“That buoy provides data that gets archived into the Great Lakes Observing System, so any researcher can go in and look at that data,” said Fisk. “But it’s also contributing specifically to projects about harmful algal blooms and nutrient dynamics.” 

RAEON’s ongoing work includes a project with Union Water Supply System, which provides drinking water to local greenhouses and about 65,000 people in Essex, Kingsville, Lakeshore, and Leamington. 

A high-tech monitoring buoy is shown bobbing in the water in Lake Erie near Leamington on Tuesday. PHOTO BY DAN JANISSE /Windsor Star

The buoys in Lake Erie provide updates every 10 to 30 minutes, measuring nutrients, currents, algal blooms, and other water characteristics. 

“If conditions change they can adjust how they’re treating the water they provide to southern Essex County and to the greenhouse growers,” said Fisk.

“That’s important because conditions can change really quickly out here, and if they’re not ready for it, it can disrupt their supply of water to the greenhouses and the people.” 

But lake levels and algal blooms are not the only menaces to worry about across Canada. Fisk said drought is coming to large parts of the country this year.

And zombie fires are already on the move.  

Many of the catastrophic Canadian wildfires that darkened skies with smoke across the globe last year never died out. They went underground and continued quietly smouldering — likely to rise again with dry conditions and increasing temperatures.  

“Environment Canada is forecasting that 80 percent of Canada is going to see drought conditions this year,” said Fisk. “The forest fires that we saw last year in the boreal forest that created all that smoke — more than 100 of those fires did not go out during the winter.

“Those are called zombie fires. They stay underneath the low snowpack. We have serious issues that we need to think about. We’re seeing changes.

“We really do have a freshwater crisis and we have to pay attention to this sooner than later.” 

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Todd Leadley, a field technician with RAEON, is shown on Tuesday aboard a scientific vessel at Leamington Marina preparing a high-tech monitoring buoy that will be dropped into Lake Erie. PHOTO BY DAN JANISSE /Windsor Star

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