Peter Jobin tests the impact of oil on freshwater sedimentsMaster’s student Peter Jobin tests the impact of oil on freshwater sediments in the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research biomaterials laboratory.

International team to explore impact of freshwater oil spill

What would happen to the Great Lakes freshwater ecosystem if there were an oil spill? An international, multidisciplinary team of scientists is planning in-depth investigations into that very question.

UWindsor researchers from the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) are joining a multi-faceted team led by Michigan’s Lake Superior State University in the Biological Impacts of Oil in Our Waters of the North (BIO-OWN) network. The four-year project has received $1,756,000 from Natural Resources Canada Multi-Partner Research Initiative fund.

“There is not a lot of research that’s been done on freshwater habitats and what happens when these spills occur,” says Chris Weisener, School of the Environment professor and GLIER researcher.

“Many studies have explored the impacts of oil spills on aquatic life; however, most studies have focused on marine systems, effects on individual species, or used lab-based experiments.”

The team will take wetland samples and run simulation exercises to evaluate long-term effects of oil on the structure and function of wetland communities.

The facility will be constructed along the shores of the St. Marys River, which connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron, and will enable researchers to study long-term, multi-trophic level effects of oil spills and bioremediation strategies under ambient environmental conditions, including harsh winters. Researchers will perform analysis in-house at GLIER.

“We do know oil impacted wetlands given time seem to respond favourably especially in saltwater environments, but the ecology is completely different compared to a freshwater system,” says Dr. Weisener.

“We’ll transplant wetland materials and expose those materials to an oil product. We’re starting at the base of the food web because we want to specifically observe whether the microbes respond favourably to that exposure.”

The project will work with real systems and study the unique possibility of bioremediation through microbes.

“Microbes see the oil as food,” Weisener says. “We also want to know whether the natural biogeochemical cycling is disrupted when exposed to these oil products and if they end up producing any harmful byproducts.”

GLIER director Mike McKay says there are other factors to consider regarding Lake Erie since the lake already has natural sources of gas that seep in.

“There are hundreds of gas swells in the central basin of Lake Erie?” says Dr. McKay. “Does this mean the system is already primed to deal with hydrocarbon contamination? Are the necessary organisms already present?”

Approaching the natural community, he says, will provide a more realistic picture of what is actually going on, including collecting local samples.

“We’ll expose real communities, taken from wetlands mainly in Sault St. Marie,” says McKay.

“But we hope to augment with local samplings including areas that might be prone to low level but chronic exposure — like low level oil pollution from the Detroit River shipping industry.”

The three main goals of the network are to:

  • advance scientific understanding of the ecological effects of oil spills,
  • inform risk assessment models, and
  • enhance oil spill preparedness, response, and damage assessment.

Master’s student Peter Jobin (BSc 2023) will start collecting samples for the project in the spring and summer of 2024-25.

The diverse team also includes experts from Algoma University, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center, Cedre (France), as well as Lake Superior State University’s Center for Freshwater Research and Education, host site of the USCG Center of Expertise for Great Lakes Oil Spill Preparedness and Response.