Last year already saw a number of improvements at Stone Laboratory, but renovations and updates continue on South Bass and Gibraltar Islands. The newest addition to Stone Lab’s facilities will be an Algae & Water Quality Lab, housed in the Stone Lab Research Building and slated to open this summer.
Adding significantly to Stone Lab’s research capabilities, the Water Quality Lab will offer analysis services for a wide range of nutrients, cyanobacteria toxins, and suspended solids. Outside researchers will be able to request these tests from Stone Lab staff, and summer students in Stone Lab’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program will also be allowed to use the lab for their research projects.
“The new Water Quality Lab will focus on nutrient and phytoplankton analysis, which has previously been missing from Stone Lab research,” says Dr. Justin Chaffin, Stone Lab Research Coordinator and the lab’s primary technician. “Research in the new lab will address Lake Erie eutrophication and nutrient loading issues related to cyanobacterial blooms.” Construction of the lab was funded by an Ohio Environmental Fund grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA).
“Nutrient load” is the total amount of a nutrient, such as nitrogen or phosphorus, entering the water during a given time. Nutrients arrive in ecosystems in a variety of ways, such as from farm field runoff and combined sewer overflows, with phosphorus and nitrogen being of greatest concern. Once these nutrients enter the lake, they contribute to nuisance algal blooms, which are unattractive and may have a negative impact on tourism and water quality, and to harmful algal blooms, or HABs, which can threaten the health of people and animals.
HABs are an excessive growth of cyanobacteria, often called blue-green algae, which can produce toxins that damage the liver, nervous system, and skin. Cyanobacteria bloom when there is an excess of nutrients in warm water: freshwater HABs are generally caused by excess phosphorus and nitrogen. Dissolved phosphorus concentrations in Lake Erie have been rising since 1995, and HABs have been documented annually during summer and fall since 2002, with large blooms occurring 2008 through 2011.
“Once the Water Quality Lab is completed, the potential for collaborations will be incredibly wide-ranging,” says Dr. Jeff Reutter, Director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab. “We’ll be able to provide phosphorus concentrations and other data that we’ve been unable to provide in the past. The fact is that the HABs problem is not gone, and reducing phosphorus loading is as important as ever, so being able to quickly and accurately measure that loading is essential to improving the health of Lake Erie.”
As part of Stone Lab’s efforts to contribute to the monitoring and reduction of HABs, the Lab will continue and expand collaborations with NOAA researchers like Dr. Richard Stumpf, who issued the first harmful algal bloom forecast for Lake Erie’s western basin from Stone Lab in 2012 (go.osu.edu/habs2012). Based on satellite images of the lake, NOAA will again be able to request samples taken at specific points in Lake Erie to help them continue to calibrate and improve their predictive computer models.
In addition to assessing phosphorus and nitrogen concentrations in Lake Erie, the Water Quality Lab is set up to test for different forms of bioavailable nitrogen (nitrogen that can be used by aquatic organisms) in lake water. Nitrogen is a critical component of microcystin, produced by Microcystis cyanobacteria and the main cyanotoxin in Lake Erie. According to Chaffin, “depletion of bioavailable nitrogen is a factor in why cyanobacterial blooms switch from Microcystis to Anabaena.” Therefore, understanding bioavailable nitrogen concentrations and how they change throughout the year could in turn better inform our understanding of the causes of harmful algal blooms and toxin production triggers.
Other available tests will include plankton identification, which can help researchers focus on finding why that particular species is present in Lake Erie; chlorophyll content, which scientists use as a surrogate measurement for total amount of phytoplankton in a sample; and analysis of suspended solids, both organic and inorganic.
“The new Water Quality Lab will focus on nutrient and phytoplankton analysis, which has previously been missing from Stone Lab research.” Dr. Justin Chaffin
This last test focuses on water clarity in Lake Erie, which can impact anything from plankton growth to fish feeding and foraging by blocking sunlight for photosynthesis and making it hard for fish to see their prey. By drying sediment samples in a specialized oven and then heating them in a muffle furnace, researchers can determine the sample’s makeup, including whether the suspended solids are organic algae or inorganic sediments. Using this data, scientists and ecosystem managers can determine potential sources of water clarity problems, such as excessive runoff from farm fields lining Lake Erie tributaries.
“The Water Quality Lab will allow Stone Lab researchers, as well as other scientists, to have a wide range of water testing performed right by the lake, instead of having to send samples farther away,” Chaffin concludes. “This will not only make testing faster and more efficient, but should also free up research funds for additional tests that otherwise may not be within a project’s budget.”
And when it comes to protecting Lake Erie, arguably Ohio’s most valuable natural resource, more knowledge will always help the lake’s stewards as they continue their work.