The Manitoba Museum has launched a $1-million effort to demystify the science behind Lake Winnipeg’s environmental woes.
Lake Winnipeg: Shared Solutions, a new permanent exhibit in the museum’s subterranean Science Centre, opens Saturday with the aim of explaining the eutrophication of the world’s 10th-largest lake – and ideally motivate ordinary Manitobans to take small steps to reverse the process.
As many Manitobans are aware, the health of Lake Winnipeg has been deteriorating for decades due to an excess of nutrients, particularly phosphorus, from a wide variety of natural and human sources.
Too much phosphorus promotes the growth of algae that transform the entire underwater ecosystem by reducing sunlight in the lake, increasing the turbidity of the water and reducing the oxygen available to fish and other organisms.
Explaining how all this works has proven challenging for scientists and educators, especially as much of the public debate about the lake has centred upon who is responsible for the problem.
In response, the Manitoba Museum has invested two and a half years in an exhibit it hopes will simplify the science behind what ails the lake and offer practical advice to remediate the province’s largest body of water.
"We’re trying to clarify a really complex topic," said Scott Young, the Manitoba Museum’s manager of science communications and visitor experience.
"All most people know is what they hear in soundbites. People in the city usually blame it all on hog barns or Manitoba Hydro, and when you talk to people in rural areas, they say the problem is sewage from the City of Winnipeg."
In reality, the sources of Lake Winnipeg’s phosphorus are numerous and varied. The include cities, factories, farms, cottages and drainage channels scattered across the lake’s vast drainage basin, which extends from the Rocky Mountains in Alberta down to the headwaters of the Red River in South Dakota to Canadian Shield boundary waters of northwestern Ontario.
Panels at the new museum exhibit explain the scale and variety of these sources. But the exhibit’s centrepiece is a $500,000 interactive game that allows up to eight players to simulate the results of different strategies – some of them real, some theoretical – to improve the health of the lake.
The simulation, which uses hardened tap-screen technology ("an iPad would only last four hours in this environment," Young noted) offers players a chance to reduce the algae blooms on the lake through efforts as mundane asin eliminating in-sink garburators or as radical as banning hog-farming.
Obviously, it’s just an exercise. A brief demonstration by Young illustrates there is no magic way to save the lake, as almost any effort to reverse eutrophication comes with economic and ecological consequences.
"This is the only game of its kind backed up by scientific rigour," Young said. "At the same time, we don’t want people to leave overwhelmed. We don’t want people to go, ‘Oh man, this is complicated, we can’t do anything about it.’ "
A panel of 15 scientific and industry experts advised the exhibit, with the help of Winnipeg’s International Institute for Sustainable Development.
"There is no simple solution, but we do want people walking away feeling empowered and knowing they can do something to help the situation," said Dimple Roy, a program director at the Winnipeg institute.
While every effort was taken to avoid assigning blame, not all of the content in the exhibit is flattering. "There’s some stuff in here our stakeholders aren’t overly pleased with," Young said.
The exhibit is expected to operate for five years and may be incorporated into a pending redesign of the entire Manitoba Museum – a process which has just started.