A fresh look at freshwaters: Researchers release a 50,000 lake database

A new “geography of lake water quality,” known as LAGOS, allows scientists to understand entire populations of lakes to better inform water policy and management.

Lowering deep sampler.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Countless numbers of people across the country spent time this past summer enjoying lakes for swimming, fishing, boating and pleasure. However, the water quality of our nation’s lakes is threatened by not only the things that people do in and around them but also by less obvious factors such as agriculture and climate change. In addition, because lakes differ from each other naturally, they may be affected by these factors and people’s actions differently. 

To better understand the complex factors that threaten lake water quality, scientists need data on many lakes in various types of environmental settings. Unfortunately, much of the lake and geographic data needed for such studies is not easily accessible because the datasets exist in multiple formats scattered across government, university, and private databases – sometimes only in file drawers. Until now. 

A new “geography of lake water quality,” known as LAGOS, allows scientists to understand entire populations of lakes to better inform water policy and management. LAGOS, which stands for LAke multi-scaled GeOSpatial and temporal database, includes information on 50,000 inland U.S. lakes in 17 northeastern and upper Midwestern states. 

A team of researchers in ecological, computer, geographic, and information sciences built LAGOS, led by Patricia Soranno, professor of ecology at Michigan State University (MSU). The team’s recent article published in the journal GigaScience makes this information available to researchers, policymakers and the public.

“We are at an exciting time in environmental science, when people are recognizing that the big problems we face require us to work together across disciplinary boundaries and to openly share data, methods, and tools,” said Kendra Cheruvelil, co-author and professor of ecology at Michigan State University.

With funding from the US National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Macrosystems Biology Program, the researchers collected water quality information from scientists, government and tribal environmental agency personnel, and citizens. In fact, this database is a result of over 70 individuals who took time to share water quality data with the team, thousands of individuals who originally collected and processed the water quality data from 1980 to 2012, and more than 15 researchers at several institutions who worked together for 6 years to combine the information. 

“Access to clean drinking water and the services lakes provide, such as fishing and recreation, are among the greatest environmental challenges we face today,” said Liz Blood, program director for NSF’s MacroSystems Biology program.  “Now a comprehensive database has been created that will provide easy access to information on water quality and the physical and ecological factors that affect it across scales from individual lakes to entire regions. It will be a valuable resource for researchers, managers, landowners and citizens to evaluate the many factors affecting lakes.” 

The LAGOS team also gathered information for all 50,000 lakes in the 17 states from digital maps, including land use, geology, and climate, and combined it with the water quality information. The result? A geography of lake water quality. 

“We cannot sample every lake. This effort is a great example of how environmental research needs to leverage a wide range of different types of information such as the increasingly available map-based data like Google Earth, with lake water samples that water resource biologists and citizens collect,” said Corinna Gries, co-author and information scientist at the University of Wisconsin. 

The LAGOS-team has published many ecology and computer science articles to better understand why water quality differs across the 50,000 lakes in the 70,000 square mile region. However, the team also wanted the database to be used as a springboard for other researchers and research questions. For example, scientists are using LAGOS to understand how freshwaters affect mosquito-borne human disease, as well as how water quality influences people visiting lakes. The hope is that this valuable database encourages more research on lakes, which are an important part of so many people’s lives. 

“These examples show how efforts like LAGOS can build the capacity for broad-scale research of the environment. Our experience has also shown us the importance of changing the scientific culture to be open, to use big-data approaches, and to be collaborative so that our science can better inform policy and management to preserve water quality for future generations,” said Patricia Soranno.

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