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Ecologist studies Great Lakes

Katie Sisk | Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Notre Dame research assistant professor Sheila Christopher earned a $155,358 grant from the University of Michigan Water Center, which focuses on environmental issues specific to the Great Lakes, to study environmental solutions in Lake Erie.

Christopher, who works with Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative (ECI), said her research will focus on creating a computer model to represent the effectiveness of two specific farmland-drainage management practices, the two-stage ditch process and the tile drain management process, to combat fertilizer runoff into the Great Lakes, which supply 20 percent of the world’s freshwater.

“The goal would be to identify if these new and innovative management practices can help reduce nutrient pollution at a large scale, as compared to more traditional practices,” Christopher said. “And also by using this watershed scale [computer] model … we’ll be able to transfer the technology to other research groups, not only in the Great Lakes, but other watersheds around the country and even the world.”

These management processes relate to the use of fertilizer in farming and the way farmers deal with excess fertilizer, Christopher said. Biology professor Jennifer Tank, who directs the ECI, saidsuch runoff fertilizer could greatly affect the aquatic ecosystem.

“In order to have productive agriculture, we need to apply fertilizer, and oftentimes we apply too much fertilize,” Tank said.  “That ends up in our streams and rivers, and the streams and rivers transport those excess nutrients downstream, often to sensitive water bodies.”

Researchers address the problem of nutrient pollution on a smaller scale by looking at alternative ways of managing the land, according to Tank.

“We’ve been working on different management strategies and testing out different management practices that might reduce the impact of agricultural fertilizers,” Tank said.

However, this small-scale research fails to address bigger problems like those in the Great Lakes, so Christopher stepped in, Tank said.

“We hired Christopher as a research assistant professor … to take the field data that we’ve been collecting and the positive results that we’ve been getting at the smaller spatial scale … and then scale that up to whole water shed,” Tank said. “And then her goal is to put that into a water shed model to see if we can impact or improve the state of the Great Lakes Tributary.”

While nutrient pollution occurs all over the world, this grant focuses specifically on the impact on the Great Lakes, according to Christopher.

“The Great Lakes are used for tourism, for drinking water, [and] for fisheries, and we need to maintain and keep these lakes healthy. In order to do that, we have to look upstream,” Christopher said.

The ECI brings together the efforts of about 40 different Notre Dame faculty members from several different disciplines to focus on issues regarding environmental change, Tank said.

“The three areas that the Environmental Change Initiative focuses on is the impact of climate change on the environment, the impact of invasive species on the environment, and the impact of land use on the environment, mainly focused around fresh water,” Tank said. “The [Environmental Change Initiative] provides this umbrella initiative or organization that organizes faculty around these grand environmental challenges that really are facing society as a whole.”

Contact Katie Sisk at csisk1@nd.edu