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Mike McKayMike McKay is the new executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research.

Research leader welcomed to helm of Great Lakes Institute

You can get a crash course on algal blooms in Lake Erie if you talk to Mike McKay, but you might pick up some curling tips, too.

Dr. McKay is the new executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research. An avid curler who played for the varsity squad while doing his undergrad degree at Queen’s University, McKay is also an assistant coach for the Lancer team.

The Chatham-area native has more than a passing interest in ice.

McKay was aboard Canadian Coast Guard Ship Griffon in the winter of 2007 as part of an Environment Canada survey. As the Griffon broke up the ice on Lake Erie to keep the shipping channels clear, brown water gushed to the surface.

McKay and the team discovered it was a bloom of diatoms. The algae not only survive below the surface of the ice, they have the remarkable ability to help form ice through a process called ice nucleation.

“Prior to 2007, we didn’t think anything was going on in the winter,” McKay said. “Now we know the lakes don’t go to sleep in the winters.”

Unlike toxic cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, plaguing Lake St. Clair and western Lake Erie, the diatoms found in Lake Erie are largely benign. In fact, their presence is helpful, providing a lipid-rich food source for plankton and, eventually, fish, McKay explained: “It helps sustain the vibrant fishery here in Ontario.”

But when they sink and decay, diatoms also use up oxygen, contributing to an annual “dead zone” in the lake.

McKay, who has spent the last 21 years on faculty at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, will continue his research on algae while at GLIER.

In fact, as he started his tenure here, he was putting the final touches on an application to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for a grant to study “carbon sinks” in Lake Erie related to declines in ice cover. McKay explains that algae use carbon dioxide, just as trees in forests use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Understanding algae can advance climate science, McKay said.

“We can use the lakes as proxies for understanding the oceans,” he said. “In this case, parallels in declining ice cover may allow us to use Lake Erie as a proxy for what’s going on in the Arctic.”

The university is pleased to have McKay on faculty, not only for his specific expertise on algal blooms but for his broad knowledge about large lakes, said K.W. Michael Siu, vice-president, research and innovation.

“He is also a seasoned research leader whose collegial and collaborative style will serve him well in leading and facilitating large-scale research endeavours,” Dr. Siu said. “I am absolutely delighted that we are able to bring him back home to Southern Ontario."

McKay said in addition to his research, he plans to do more public outreach while at GLIER. He will discuss Great Lakes water quality at an upcoming event in the Faculty of Science’s Science on Tap speaker series. He recruited a Chatham-Kent farmer he first met at a bonspiel to join him at the event to talk, among other things, about the importance of soil testing to optimize the use of fertilizers.

A more targeted approach to fertilizer application by farmers would lead to less nitrogen and phosphorus in the run-off that eventually reaches the Great Lakes, McKay explained. Reducing these pollutants would improve water quality, decreasing the size and frequency of algal blooms.

“Solutions to these issues require changes to human behaviour,” McKay said. So, as well as working with the farm community, McKay said he would like to collaborate with economists, law faculty and experts from the social sciences about incentives and disincentives for farmers. “You could tax fertilizer but instead, maybe you could develop incentives to plant cover crops. To help reduce fertilizer run-off.”

McKay will maintain his position as research co-ordinator of Bowling Green’s Lake Erie Centre for Fresh Waters and Human Health, established in October 2018 with a US$5.2-million grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Science Foundation in the United States.

“This can open avenues to collaborate,” he said, explaining the centre could offer research opportunities for UWindsor students. “These are binational issues, so we need a binational approach.”

—Sarah Sacheli

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