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New Database of 50,000 Lakes’ Water Quality to Improve Policy

Patricia Soranno and Kendra Cheruvelil

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, ecology professor at Michigan State University.

“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, MSU ecologist and co-author of the team’s recent article published in the journal GigaScience.

With funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Macrosystems Biology Program, the researchers collected water quality information from more than 70 individuals who took time to share 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 six 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..”

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,” Soranno said.

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