When asked what my scientific field is, I usually say “limnology” to other scientists. But to non-scientists, I say something like “aquatic ecology” because I suspect that most people have never heard of limnology. Indeed, I asked my husband how he would describe my work and he said: “You do research. In your field.” When I further asked him what my field was, he said: “Nitrogen.” Hmm. It seems I should do a better job explaining what I do.
First, the “i” in limnology pronounced like that in “limb”, not “lime”. Funny story – I used to have a sticker about limnology on the cover of my laptop. When going through airport security in the US, a TSA agent saw my laptop and asked me, seriously, if I studied limes.
Limnology is the study of inland waters, in contrast to oceanography, which is the study of oceans. The word is derived from the ancient Greek word limne, meaning marsh or pond, and the Latin word limnaea, meaning thing pertaining to a marsh. “Limnology” was first coined by Swiss scientist François-Alphonse Forel (1841-1912), who pioneered the study of lakes through his work on Lake Geneva. Forel is regarded as the founder the discipline.
Limnology is to inland waters as oceanography is to oceans
Inland waters include: lakes (both freshwater and saline, like the Great Salt Lake), reservoirs, rivers, streams, wetlands, and groundwater. Sometimes the distinction between limnology and oceanography is not clear. For example, both limnologists and oceanographers study the Baltic Sea because it has characteristics of both lakes and oceans.
Collecting zooplankton with a net
What does it mean to study inland waters?
Broadly, limnology studies how organisms (fish, algae, mussels, bacteria, copepods, etc.) interact with each other and the environment around them, which includes the drainage basin and the atmosphere. It also includes the study of physical (water movement, water clarity, shape of the water body, etc.) and chemical (pH, salinity, etc.) aspects of these water bodies. Limnology integrates biology, geology, physics, and chemistry to understand inland aquatic ecosystems.
My PhD research took me to Colorado and Norway, where I collected water and sediments from over 50 lakes and spent time in the lab conducting experiments and analyzing field samples. Since then, my research has moved indoors. At the Baltic Sea Centre, I use computer models and datasets to study the sources and amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus transported to the sea (primarily by rivers, but also by wastewater inputs and the atmosphere) and their effects. I am also involved in outreach: communicating scientific knowledge about the Baltic Sea to general audiences.
There are a number of professional scientific societies related to limnology. I am a member of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO). There are other scientific societies that are more specialized, such as the Society for Wetland Scientists and the Phycological Society of America (phycology is the study of algae).
If you want to meet other limnologists or learn more, check out the ASLO website.
Limnology is not the study of limes