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Emily Graham has spent much of the summer around the St. Louis River estuary, collecting soil samples, talking to local experts and laying the foundation for her research project into how mercury gets into fish.
She's not alone. This summer other researchers working around the estuary are analyzing fish for contamination, delving into biogeochemical processes in the water, creating a monitoring plan for an endangered species of marsh grass, examining how local people are engaged in governing environmental issues, and more.
All the researchers are working in cooperation with the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve in their efforts to better understand the environment and search for ways to protect it. At the same time, staff members at the reserve's headquarters in Superior are preparing some of their own research projects while also setting up stations that are part of a nationwide network to collect environmental information for monitoring and analysis.
Research still growing
"Our research program is still growing," said Dr. Shon Schooler, research coordinator for the Lake Superior NERR. "We have a couple of graduate students at work, and groups from University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. Also, a United States Geological Survey researcher is in the middle of his project."
"Next year there will be these projects plus more starting. I think we'll have about 10 projects going in any given year from external researchers. And we haven't really started our own projects yet because we're still putting in monitoring systems to create baseline data," he added.
Reserve has many local partners
The Lake Superior NERR, established in 2010 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is one of 28 estuaries in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. The Lake Superior NERR covers nearly 16,700 acres of publicly owned marshes, uplands, rivers and Lake Superior shoreline that are part of the St. Louis River estuary in Douglas County.
Partners in the reserve include the University of Wisconsin-Superior along with the University of Wisconsin Extension, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, City of Superior, and Douglas County. Also involved in the project are the Wisconsin and Minnesota Sea Grant programs, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Wisconsin Coastal Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the U. S. Coast Guard.
Natural science and social science
As research coordinator, part of Schooler's job is to help researchers use the NERR for their work. Some of the scientists are employed locally while others are coming in from outside the area. Many are focusing on a wide variety of projects involving biology and chemistry.
Other researchers, however, are examining questions in the social sciences, such as how people use and govern their water resources. NERR staff and NOAA also want to encourage that kind of study.
"We're realizing more and more that management of a resource is about more than just the biogeophysical properties. It's also about getting people involved in managing the resources," Schooler said.
"We're trying to better understand the estuary and make it a better place to live," he added. "We're really a public service organization trying to get information out to people."
Seeking answers about mercury
Among the researchers using the Lake Superior NERR this summer is Graham, who is pursuing a doctorate degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her first year of work is being funded by a NOAA research fellowship. She expects her work to take three years, although the NOAA fellowship program has been cut because of funding reductions.
Simply put, Graham is studying how toxic mercury winds up in fish.
Everyone understands mercury enters the St. Louis River through precipitation like rain and in groundwater runoff. But mercury simply isn't absorbed by fish. Microbes must first turn it into an organic substance that fish can eat.
"We know this happens but we don't know how," she said.
Investigating 'microbial communities'
Graham is looking at "microbial communities" in the estuary to see which microbes could be converting the mercury. New genetic techniques developed in the past several years could be the key to scientists who want to see which microbes are digesting mercury and creating the "chemical transformations" that make it digestible for larger creatures.
Since starting her work June 1, Graham has set up labs, talked to local experts and taken soil samples from marshes and river bottom. She plans to return later this summer and again during the winter to collect additional samples.
She hopes to get funding to continue her research for another two to three years for analyzing samples and experimenting to simulate situations such as climate change and pollution to see how that affects the process. "I'm interested in how this process will change as our environment changes," she said.
Monitoring local waters
While NERR staff members have been assisting other scientists and working on new research, Schooler said their own work largely has been focused on setting up a system to monitor water quality in the estuary.
NERR staff members are recording water quality information logged by submerged monitoring devices at the Oliver and Blatnik bridges. Two more devices will be put in place next summer, along with a weather station in Pokegama Bay.
They'll also use a portable "auto-sampler" that can take water samples every hour for 24 hours. That sampler can be used to record water quality changes that may occur quickly, such as after a heavy rain.
Baseline data essential
The data will be used to establish a baseline for the quality of the water as it stands today. Future scientists will be able to compare their current data to the baseline information to see how climate change may affect water quality. They also will be to use it for short-term issues, such as whether spring snowmelt sends "pulses" of salts or other contaminants into the river.
"There are all sorts of things that we can ask questions about, but that requires baseline data," Schooler said.
Like other locations in the chain of National Estuarine Research Reserves, the Lake Superior NERR will become a "sentinel site" that feeds its water quality data to NOAA to create a coast-to-coast picture that could be useful in detecting and monitoring climate change and other events.
As word spreads about the Lake Superior NERR, more researchers are likely to use the resource for their work, Schooler said.
"More people are getting to know about us," he said. "More people are coming out to take a look."
Those scientists will benefit from lab facilities that will be added to the Lake Superior NERR offices on Barkers Island. Researchers will then be able to process and analyze samples at the site.
Graham said she's looking forward to future visits to the Twin Ports as research at the Lake Superior NERR continues to take shape.
"What makes this (the Lake Superior NERR) unique is that it's really community-based," Graham said. "We're doing a lot of research here but we also have a great education coordinator who's getting kids involved in the science. And we all help each other. We've been able to talk about science and why it's important. I think the NERR system in general does a good job of having research that's relevant to communities."
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