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Biostation data valuable to managing future of Flathead Lake

YELLOW BAY – A sophisticated modeling system used by University of Montana researchers at the Flathead Lake biological station could play a key role in the lake’s future. 

In a talk June 29 Researcher Shawn Devlin told the audience that he has been working with the model, which is seeing substantial success when it comes to predicting lake temperature, and is expected to be used to study other physical and environmental aspects of the body of water. 

“Shawn’s work is really important to the future management questions of the lake,” said Tom Bansak, fellow Flathead Biological Station researcher and outreach coordinator. “Your decisions are only as good as the information you have.” 

Devlin’s work inputs nearly three decades of data into a modeling system that combines two other modeling systems. One of the modeling components factors in hydrodynamic conditions that include the physical aspects of the lake. The other part of the system utilizes a sophisticated food web modeling element to help make predictions. 

“It’s really, really complex,” Devlin said. 

But it is also incredibly accurate. Most researchers are happy with a 75 percent accuracy for similar projects, but Devlin was able to accurately predict the temperature of Flathead Lake in 2012 with 97 percent accuracy using the model. The accuracy bumps up to 99 percent when outlier data from a single day’s weather observations is omitted.

“The model can really pinpoint and tell us where things are changing,” Devlin said. 

He added that the model allows researchers to look forward and backward into the lake’s history to observe or predict how complex changes occur. 

“What I am most interested in is a catastrophic event,” Devlin said. “So if fertilizer were to spill in Bigfork and go right into the Swan River, we would have a huge pulse of phosphorus. How is that going to impact phytoplankton and how are those phytoplankton going to react?” 

Devlin’s usage of the model has completed an optimistic and a dire version of the lake in 2092, based on projected surface temperature changes and Flathead Lake data that was collected in 2012. Devlin’s model predicts there will still be a lot of cold water in Flathead Lake, but that the lake’s surface will change.

“You can see a big increase in surface temperatures, but on average, because there is so much cold water we don’t see much change on average in the mean temperature of the lake,” Devlin said. 

The average temperature of the lake is expected to increase around 1 degree Celsius, while the surface temperature is expected to increase between 4 and 6 degrees. 

The exact impact of the long-term projected temperature increase is unknown, and Flathead Biological Station Director Jack Stanford pointed out that the model’s sophisticated capabilities can be used to evaluate other potential threats, like invasive species, that could have a much more drastic impact on the lake in a much shorter period of time than a century. 

“If you ask those of us who have studied the lake since 1974, the biggest thing that happened is the introduction of mysis shrimp,” Stanford told the audience. “That changed Flathead Lake more than any climate impact whatsoever. That doesn’t mean climate and nutrient loading aren’t important. Shawn has shown that they are. But it is highly likely that some other event like (mysis) will trump climate change, given the track record on the lake.” 

As Devlin’s research continues, one of his best tools has been disabled. Two buoy weather stations that collect data from the lake were damaged last year. 

“The buoy data is really invaluable to me,” Devlin said. “Not having them in the water right now is a shame.” 

People can help support the project by making donations for the buoys, which cost around $10,000 per year to maintain. Equipping them with more specialized tools to aid Devlin’s work is estimated to cost around $100,000. 

Visit www.flbs.umt.edu/ to learn more about how to donate. 

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