Fishing for Information: Stephen Jane researches response of lake ecosystems to global change

Author: John LeSage

Stephen Jane

Stephen Jane spent most of his formative years around the water, never failing to bring in a trout on a hook — and the thrill of these adventures has stayed with him.

He turned his love for the outdoors into environmental research, and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Notre Dame with Stuart Jones, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Jones studies aquatic ecology across scales, exploring how greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient cycling affect the populations of lake-dwelling organisms.

“I look at the response of aquatic systems to large-scale change,” said Jane, who also researches lakes. “A lot of that is related to warming of lakes — what that means.”

Climate change affects the whole planet, and lakes are no exception. Jane described how aquatic environments, and especially the wildlife that survives within them, are susceptible to environmental change in many different ways. He’s seen these effects firsthand on brook trout in upstate New York, where he has often conducted research over the years.

“The idea is that lakes are undergoing current surface warming and resulting loss of dissolved oxygen,” Jane said. “If the water’s too warm in the summer, brook trout dive to where it’s cool, but the cold water needs oxygen to support the fish.”

Despite their aquatic habitat, fish still need oxygen to breathe, which they take in through their gills. A lack of dissolved oxygen causes them to suffocate.

However, the problems from a lack of oxygen don’t stop there, according to Jane: “Oxygen is important in a lot of chemical reactions, so if you deoxygenate large areas of the lake, you release nutrients from sediments which can enhance algal blooms that may become harmful.”

Harmful algal blooms, such as the one that covered Lake Erie in 2011, have significant impacts on drinking water and recreational use — and may even contribute to greenhouse gas emissions back to the atmosphere. Similarly, ongoing deoxygenation is likely to alter carbon cycling through lakes in other ways, which his work at Notre Dame will explore. Everything is connected in Jane’s research.

Although the results may seem dire, Jane noted that his work allows people to become more aware of the consequences of climate change.

“It gives people a ‘heads up’ . . . and they can make informed decisions about the costs and benefits of continuing on our current course,” he said.

Jane is excited to begin his postdoc research at Notre Dame, both because of the people and the facilities he gets to work with.

“Dr. Jones is a great guy and conducts exciting research,” he said. “And having just arrived and being around the campus, it’s a really beautiful place with outstanding facilities. I’ve been walking around thinking that it’s a really nice place to be a student.”

As Jane pursues his research, he’ll have plenty of time to de-stress by continuing his fishing endeavors. And just as he’s hoping to answer some big questions about climate change and lakes, he’s hoping to catch the next “Big One” at some point.

“While spending time in the Adirondacks,” he said, “I’ve caught brook trout up to 20 inches long. That’s pretty cool, and probably a once in a lifetime opportunity.”