One of the most pressing environmental problems we face is the global contamination of aquatic ecosystems with natural and industrial chemicals. Freshwater pollution has profound consequences for society and the environment. Pollution of water bodies poses threats to human health, and degrades the essential services these ecosystems provide to people, such as drinking water, food production, and recreation. Pollution is also a major contributing factor to the global freshwater biodiversity crisis. Aquatic contaminants can reduce the fitness of plants and animals, alter the composition of freshwater communities, and impair the ecological function of aquatic ecosystems. In the QE3 research group, we generate policy-relevant science to inform the regulation and management of toxic chemicals in fresh waters, with the ultimate goal of protecting and restoring the health of lakes and wetlands.
We work on a diversity of emerging or globally-important aquatic contaminants, ranging from nutrients and algal toxins to flame retardants and petrochemicals. We approach the study of contaminants through the lens of ecosystem ecology and with an interdisciplinary toolkit. Our team works at multiple levels of the aquatic food web, from bacteria and phytoplankton through to fish and amphibians. We are interested in both the environmental fate of contaminants, as well as their effects at the individual, community, and ecosystem-levels. We test hypotheses regarding the fate and effects of contaminants by conducting large-scale experimental manipulations in model or real aquatic ecosystems. Our research requires a high level of cooperation within our team and strong partnerships with government, non-profit organizations, and other academic institutions.
A major focus of our current research program is on understanding the potential ecological effects of pollution from Canadian oil sands development, and working toward solutions to mitigate any potential harm from this industry on aquatic ecosystems and wildlife that inhabit them. Freshwater ecosystems can be contaminated with chemicals of concern from oil sands development through multiple pathways during the extraction, processing and transport of oil sands products ‒ but the consequences of this aquatic pollution for ecosystem health remain poorly understood. Our research is addressing knowledge gaps regarding the impacts of air pollutants from oil sands operations deposited to snowpack on fish and amphibians, the efficacy of a novel technology to detoxify waste water from tailings ponds, and the fate and effects of accidental spills of an oil sands product, diluted bitumen, in freshwater lakes. Other research areas we are currently working on, or actively developing, include: drivers of harmful algal blooms and cyanotoxin production, interactions between microplastics and other contaminants in freshwater ecosystems, and effects of naphthenic acids on animal behaviour.