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Investigating Lake Circulation to Influence Environmental Policy

Professor Wells studies currents in lakes and oceans to determine how nutrients and sediments move around

My name is Mathew Wells and I'm an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physical and Environmental Science at UTSC. My area of expertise is "environmental fluid dynamics", which means that I study currents in lakes and the ocean to determine how nutrients and sediments are moved around.

I've come to UTSC in a roundabout way but I love it here. I did an undergraduate degree in Physics and Mathematics in Australia and my interest in the environment led me to do my PhD research at the Research School of Earth Sciences in Australia. I then worked in the Netherlands and at Yale in the US. I was drawn to the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UTSC because of the broad range of environmental scientists here. It's an exciting place to work.

I teach three undergraduate courses and one graduate course, but my favourite course is a field-based course that alternates between Algonquin Park and Lake Ontario. My graduate course teaches students quantitative methods to describe contaminant transport in rivers, lakes and the oceans.

The vast number of lakes in Southern Ontario means there is a wide range of potential field sites. I have been involved in projects in Lake Opeongo (in Algonquin Park), Goderich Harbour on Lake Huron, Fathom Five National Marine Park (located at Tobermory at the end of the Bruce Peninsula), the St Clair River and Frenchman's Bay in Pickering, which is really close to the UTSC campus.

All of these field projects have involved both undergraduate and graduate students. Field work requires good hands-on skills as well as good mathematical techniques, and I have been fortunate to have had a good team over the past four years.

We have learned some interesting things about water circulation through our field work:

  • In Frenchman's Bay, we determined that water remained in the Bay for about 1-2 weeks, which, combined with high nutrient loading, leads to poor water quality.
  • At Tobermory, we found that the water temperature at the lake bed was not constant, but is always varying by several degrees due to the strong currents.
  • In Lake Opeongo, we identified when and where turbulence occurs on the bottom of lakes after the wind blows over the surface. This is important because turbulence stirs up sediments that provide nutrients to the water.
  • In the St Clair River, we determined how quickly ballast water released from freight ships diluted. The values were much higher than previously estimated and will be used to set water quality standard in large freight ships.

In all of my field work, I work closely with Government Agencies such as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Parks Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. My findings will be used in policy decisions on Environmental management.

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