Institutional Profile

LLO is housed in the Research Lab Building on the Old Main part of the UMD campus.

The Large Lakes Observatory and the Scientific Study of the Large Lakes of Earth

This document was submitted for publication and was published with minor revisions as: Sterner, R., S. Colman, and T. Johnson. 2017. Institute Profile: The Large Lakes Observatory and the Scientific Study of the Large Lakes of Earth. Limnology and Oceanography Bulletin 26: 11-13.

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On a hillside overlooking Lake Superior (Fig. 1), the world’s most extensive body of fresh water, sits the Large Lakes Observatory, a research institute dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of large lakes throughout the world. LLO strives to understand how large lakes function, how they behaved in the past, and how they will respond to environmental changes in the coming years.

Earth’s largest lakes are immensely valuable to humankind as reservoirs of fresh water and biodiversity. For example, only five lakes hold over 50% of Earth’s liquid, surface, fresh water.

Earth’s large lakes shape the culture of the societies around them and provide valuable ecosystem services to them. Scientific study on large lakes requires specialized tools and uses approaches from oceanography and other fields.

LLO houses the necessary infrastructure and maintains the expertise needed to conduct state-of-the-art research on these vast inland seas. LLO scientists have carried out major expeditions to the great lakes of the East African Rift Valley, Lake Issyk Kul in central Asia, Lake Nicaragua, Lake Qinghai in China, Great Slave Lake in the Canadian Arctic, as well as to smaller lakes throughout the world. At the same time, Lake Superior as headwaters of the Laurentian Great Lakes continues to be a focus.

The combination of its oceanographic approach and its global perspective on large lakes makes LLO unique among limnological research institutes in the world. Time scales of interest range from seconds to millennia. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is the largest supporter of LLO research, but critical funding comes also from other federal agencies, the Sea Grant Program, the state of Minnesota, and the University of Minnesota.

Large lakes are the central focus of LLO, but LLO scientists are involved in studies of small lakes as well as oceans, providing additional scientific perspective. Walking the halls of the Research Lab Building on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus, home of LLO, one is likely to overhear conversations about ongoing and future projects, for example:

  • Describing the 700,000-year history of climate, volcanic activity and human action in the Mexico City region.
  • Exploring stoichiometric shifts associated with invasive species in fresh waters.
  • Using genomic-based tools to better characterize planktonic communities.
  • Describing fundamental time scales of biogeochemical change in large lakes.
  • Detecting microplastics and trace anthropogenic compounds in the environment.
  • Exploring productivity patterns under ice.
  • Characterizing tidally-driven waves in the Southern Ocean.
  • Resolving paleo-climate and drought cycles in western North America.
  • Tracing carbon from land to ocean in Arctic Alaska.
  • Advancing knowledge of ice dynamics in large lakes with direct observations.
  • Untangling the complex web of connections involved in how climate change affects ecosystems.

The idea of creating an institute focused on large lakes studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth began in 1988 with a "Lake Superior Water Policy Conference" held in downtown Duluth. An "Institute for Lake Superior Research" was subsequently founded using further state support and was led by Professor Bob Carlson of UMD. In 1994, Professor Tom Johnson was recruited to lead the new unit. Its name was then changed to "Large Lakes Observatory" and its mission was broadened to its current global focus. Faculty were hired in geochemistry, physical dynamics, and acoustic remote sensing.

During the next ten years, LLO grew in size and impact, and it maintained a strong focus on geophysical sciences because that was a unique and undercapitalized niche in lake science. In those years, African studies were integrated into the IDEAL (International Decade for East African Lakes) umbrella program, which was funded by NSF, headquartered in LLO, and promoted a highly successful international effort of research and training, involving scientists and students from North America, Europe, and Africa.

In 2004, Professor Steve Colman was recruited as LLO’s next Director, and through the following decade LLO grew further in personnel and broadened its disciplinary attention. Faculty were hired in physical dynamics, biology and limnology, carbon cycling, microbial processes, and biogeochemistry. During this time, LLO began a major involvement with the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP), in its efforts to drill and recover cores from the sediments beneath many of the world’s largest lakes.

LLO’s reach continues to expand under the current Director Robert Sterner. LLO today is larger and more diverse than ever. About half of LLO’s faculty were recruited to UMD less than three years ago, and five Assistant Professors in diverse fields have brought new ideas and energy. The current faculty of LLO (Table 1) have joint research and teaching appointments in disciplinary departments in the Swenson College of Science and Engineering at UMD. LLO also is expanding its horizons and including social and economic research in its projects. It is a recognized center in the Laurentian Great Lakes for its work with gliders and other autonomous platforms. All LLO personnel are housed in a single building a short walk away from UMD’s main campus; this setting promotes interdisciplinary thinking and approaches, which are very much in LLO’s “DNA”.

In addition to its research focus, LLO faculty are dedicated to teaching, outreach, and service. Graduate students from the U.S. and around the world are a mainstay of LLO research, as part of their pursuit of MS or PhD degrees in various disciplines. LLO’s vibrant graduate program, which has attracted students or post-docs from Chile, China, France, Germany, Ghana, Iran, Kenya, Malawi, Malaysia, Mozambique, Nepal, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland, Tanzania, and Uganda, also provides unique research opportunities to undergraduates.

LLO is committed to outreach programs that connect scientists with the public. Its outreach is varied and diverse, intertwined with the vast network of Great Lakes interest groups, forums, and advisory organizations. The “Science on Deck” community program, operated from the deck of the Research Vessel Blue Heron while in port, has been especially well-received. The nearby Great Lakes Aquarium, which hosts 140,000 visitors annually features the RV Blue Heron and its work in a brand new exhibit entitled “Unsalted Seas”. LLO scientists are often seen or heard on TV and radio programs.

A key component of the LLO’s activities is the operation of the RV Blue Heron, the only member of the U.S. UNOLS fleet to operate in the Great Lakes (Fig. 3). UNOLS is the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System — the academic fleet that includes larger ships at places like the Scripps and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutions. Not only is the RV Blue Heron the only member of the UNOLS fleet on the Great Lakes, it meets stringent UNOLS safety standards and is arguably the best-equipped research vessel for its diversity of capabilities on the Great Lakes. The RV Blue Heron has hosted a series of Chief Scientist Training cruises in the past several years where students, postdocs, and new faculty have had an opportunity to participate in joint operations while learning how to plan and execute cruises on ships.

In addition to its research vessel, LLO operates an unusually well-equipped set of analytical laboratories at its “home on the hill,” the last remaining building on the original UMD campus. These labs are productive generators of data for aquatic biology, chemistry, physics, and geology. (Table 1 Current LLO faculty) LLO is one of the largest limnological academic units in the U.S. with faculty across all traditional limnological disciplines:

  • Jay Austin Professor and Head of Physics and Astronomy, Large lake circulation, Thermodynamics, Ice, Observing systems
  • Erik T. Brown Professor, Earth and Environmental Sciences and Associate Vice Chancellor for Graduate Education and Research, Inorganic geochemistry, Carbon cycling, Sediment diagenesis, Inorganic geochemistry, Paleoenvironmental proxies, Geochronology
  • John A. Downing Director of Minnesota Sea Grant and Professor in Biology, Eutrophication, Biogeochemistry, Biodiversity, Microbes, Plankton, Fish
  • Sergei Katsev Associate Professor in Physics and Astronomy, Sediment biogeochemistry, reaction-transport modeling, carbon and nutrient cycling, coupled physical-chemical dynamics
  • Sam Kelly Assistant Professor in Physics and Astronomy, Large lake circulation, Tides and seiches, Internal waves, Turbulence
  • Elizabeth C. Minor Professor and Head of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Carbon cycling, Chemical and isotopic characterization of aquatic carbon pools
  • Ted Ozersky Assistant Professor in Biology, Benthos, Food webs, Nutrients, Contaminant cycling
  • Kathryn Schreiner Assistant Professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry, Organic geochemistry, Carbon cycle Biogeochemistry, Paleoecology
  • Cody Sheik Assistant Professor in Biology, Geomicrobiology, Microbial ecology, Anaerobic microbiology
  • Byron Steinman Assistant Professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences, Paleolimnology, Paleoclimatology, Climate dynamics, Ancient pollution
  • Robert Sterner Professor in Biology, Plankton, Nutrients, Carbon, Production, Stoichiometry
  • Nigel J. Wattrus Associate Professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences, Acoustic Remote Sensing
  • Emeritus: Steven M. Colman, Stephanie Guildford, Robert Hecky, Thomas Johnson

Authors: Thomas Johnson, Professor Emeritus, Large Lakes Observatory; Steve Colman, Professor Emeritus, Large Lakes Observatory; Robert Sterner, Professor, Large Lakes Observatory