No Lake Is An Island

Stephen Maberly (CEH) used this title during his talk, paraphrasing John Donne’s “No man is an island” line from the poem Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This represents an accurate summary of the freshwater themes of this year’s FBA Annual Scientific Meeting; catchments, connectivity and avoiding catastrophes. Donne’s poem structure is that of stating an element of his illness or treatment, expanding upon this statement which culminates in him becoming closer to God. From a freshwater perspective, this is not far off the aspirations of current management of catchments; identifying issues, problems or conflicts, exploring and researching these using available evidence, new data collection or simulation models and using these data to inform a higher power (the identity of which is open to interpretation!).

Further to the main theme, three terms recurred in the talks given, namely; collaborations, trade-offs and time. These are not new themes in freshwater science, or any discipline for that matter, but seem to be more pertinent now than ever. Historically, freshwater units (rivers, streams, lakes or ponds) have been studied in isolation. This has undoubtedly led to many fascinating discoveries, but these are only a very small part of the web of intrigue that is catchment management (elegantly portrayed in the Scottish Rivers Handbook diagram below).

Schematic of a typical catchment demonstrating a range of hydrological units. Copyright C.Perfect


Studies at the catchment scale are not only complex due to local, regional and global influences, but also because it is impossible for one person to have a high level of expertise in all the freshwater units, their species, chemistry and geomorphology, let alone their interactions! This exemplifies why collaborations between catchment stakeholders, including scientists, are so important. Therefore, I was thoroughly delighted when talks by Jon Webb (Natural England), Ian Wallace (FBA) and Craig Macadam (Buglife) championed the accurate recording of data by public, the importance of inspiring the public with scientific stories and forming recognised alliances to help each other.

Yet working at the catchment scale inherently leads to conflicts in what people want, when they want it and how this can be delivered. Or maybe it just exposes them better, highlighting the role of partnership working to negotiate trade-offs. We are undoubtedly heading towards increasing conflicts given the mounting strain and demand on natural resources. This subject deserves greater attention than a few sentences in this blog, but most of us would probably agree that water is the most valuable, but equally undervalued, resource on our planet, and that evidence is always important for informing conflicts – if not necessarily resolving them.

The last theme is about time. I once received a comment from a reviewer stating that 10 years is not a long time in scientific study, though I suspect he or she was older than me! How much time we allow, or indeed are allowed, is open to debate, but what is clear is that time (x) + 1 will never be enough and isn’t quick enough. Liam McAleese (Lake District National Park Authority) summarised a scientist’s point of view with this excellent placard:

Scientists are well aware of the time taken to review the quality of our work and for it to influence decision making

Yet talks from Louise Heathwaite (Lancaster Uni) and Paul Hulme (pjHydro) emphasised that where science can contribute to policy or affect public welfare (e.g. last year’s flooding in Cumbria), the turnaround has to be within hours to days. Conversely, Doug Wilson (Environment Agency), then described how one lake took 24 years to recover from high nutrient loading, moving from bad to moderate status according to the Water Framework Directive defined categories. Clearly, there cannot be a one-size fits all solution with regards to time.

So, returning to the theme ‘no lake is an island’, this is symbolic as it demonstrates the progression of freshwater science from local to landscape thinking, which, despite the complexity of catchments, must bode well for the future. Interestingly, Donne’s poem also included the lines “every man is a piece of the continent” and “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less”. These seem strangely relevant to current challenges and choices facing European scientists.

Alan Law (AlanLaw_)





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