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While salty lakes often carry a bad rap for their negative effects on soil and water wildlife, recent research out of the University of Regina shows that Saskatchewan’s hard water lakes can play a positive role in limiting Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.


The study found that global warming has fundamentally changed the chemistry of southern Saskatchewan’s salty prairie lakes, causing them to act as a carbon sink by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. With warmer climates, there is less ice cover throughout the year, which causes the lakes to become less acidic. This change in chemistry allows these water bodies to capture CO2, and this offsets about one-third of carbon emissions from Saskatchewan farms.


“We studied pretty much all of the lakes in southern Saskatchewan,” said lead researcher Kerri Finlay. “We studied the six lakes of in the Qu’Appelle chain. Then there were 50 smaller saline lakes. Peter Leavitt, a biology professor at the U of R, has been sampling those lakes for over the last 20 years. Pretty much all of them were doing the same thing.”


The study was first published on Feb. 25, 2015 in the U.K.-based environmental science journal, Nature. The research has gone on to receive international attention, including a story by Canadian correspondent Daniel Lak for the international news network Al Jazeera.


The research was conducted by U of R researchers Kerri Finlay, Bjorn Wissel, Peter Leavitt, Gavin Simpson, Matthew Bogard, and Richard Vogt, in collaboration with University of Minnesota PhD student Benjamin Tutolo.


Finlay hopes their research will lead to changes in provincial environmental policy. “We’re hoping to start communication with the provincial government about getting (these lakes) into the global carbon (inventory),” said Finlay. “There’s a lot that could be done, and I’m really excited about the prospects of taking advantage of these systems.”


Environment Canada produces a National Inventory Report regarding greenhouse gas sources and sinks in Canada. “(These documents) are a carbon inventory, and are accounting for sequester and emission of carbon,” explained Finlay. “They account for everything, (but) lakes are nowhere in this budget. I would love to see them added in.”


Along with changes to the carbon budget, Finlay hopes the research will lead to more positive changes to preserve and utilize this natural carbon capture process.


“We’re putting so much money into artificial carbon capture, it just seems to make sense to invest in natural ways to do this,” said Finlay. For Finlay, preserving these lakes is important to utilize their carbon capture abilities.


Finlay added that further research could show that farm dugouts and sloughs may be sequestering carbon as well, and further development of these water bodies could help reduce carbon emissions.


Contacted to comment on the University of Regina’s research, a Ministry of Environment spokesperson stated that while aware of some research being done over the past year, the ministry does not have the report and is therefore not in a position to comment on it.