Rare February research study set to begin soon

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Scientists have been studying the Great Lakes for years, but less than 5% of all studies have been done in the winter.

According to UMD Associate Professor and Biologist Ted Ozersky, there are a few reasons for the lack of winter research on the lakes.

“I think there are really three reasons why biologists and other scientists have been ignoring winter.” Ozersky explained. “The first one is that fieldwork in the winter is physically challenging. It’s cold. It’s unpleasant to be outside for long periods of time, and all kinds of things freeze. Roads freeze, sampling equipment freezes, batteries stop working, fingers sort of freeze, making it hard to do work. So that’s one reason, just the logistical challenge of doing winter work.”

The winter also offers scheduling difficulties for scientists who also teach.

“Another reason is that a lot of academic researchers like myself find themselves in the classroom starting from September to May,” said Ozersky. “And because of that, field work has traditionally been done during the summer season, where we have more time to do fieldwork, whereas in the winter we’re often teaching classes.”

The lack of winter research is also a factor, according to Ozersky.

“The third reason, I think, is this sort of self-perpetuating cycle of ignorance where there hasn’t been much research done on winter. So scientists assume that, well, there’s nothing interesting going on in the winter, so there is no real reason to study it,”Ozersky explained. “So winter is a time of dormancy where biology is not doing much and we might as well not look at it. But it turns out from research that people have done quite a few interesting things that are happening in the winter, but they’re important for the rest of the year.”

This has changed recently as interest in winter research has increased.

“It’s motivated by the fact that the winter is changing very fast with climate change,” said Ozersky. “Winters are getting warmer and they’re getting shorter, and in fact, the winters are solid the the time of year that’s changing the fastest with climate change. So there is a general increase in interest in winter throughout science. and then lake ecology in particular.”

In 2019, Ozersky participated in a two-day workshop through the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research. Focused on winter, this workshop led to the Great Lakes Winter Network being formed. Meeting once a month on Zoom, the group of 70 discusses a variety of winter-related research ideas.

“At some point during their meetings, we came up with this idea of, well, we have this set of questions that we came up with that we think are really important to answer, said Ozersky. “We’re all excited about winter. We are all located in different areas of the Great Lakes.”

It was within this network that “Winter Grab” was born.

Winter Grab is a collaboration between a dozen institutions around the Great Lakes, both in the U.S. and Canada, sort of trying to sample different parts of the Great Lakes and start filling in this information gap that we have about winter and what the Great Lakes do in the winter, physically, chemically and biologically,” explained Ozersky.

The project will begin on February 14th and last a week. There will be 13 groups participating, sampling around 36 locations in total.

“The reason we chose this week is that the middle of February is historically sort of the middle of winter in the Great Lakes,” said Ozersky. If you look at the amount of ice cover that’s on the great lakes, the middle of February is when the great lakes have the most ice, historically speaking.”

Ozersky hopes that this study will be the start of more winter research.

“I hope that this project will generate some preliminary data that we can use to ask bigger and more interesting questions, answering some of the questions that we have, but also sort of coming up with new, bigger questions,” he said. “I hope it will sort of spur more interest among Great Lakes researchers and studying winter. Not just another winter project, but a whole bunch of winter projects just recognizing that winter is interesting. Winter is important and winter is worth studying.”