Did you know that you can monitor water quality using insects?

Even though tiny insects in freshwater streams can’t speak to us, they tell us a lot more than you think!

Benthic macroinvertebrates reveal a great amount of information regarding water quality and are used worldwide to assess aquatic health.

Andy Williams, a recent graduate of Trent University in the Environmental and Resource Sciences program, wanted to find out if these species can also share important details about Arctic systems, too.

Freshwater resources in the Arctic have been threatened by many environmental threats.

Modernization and “urbanization” of communities, even in the Arctic, can place a real limitation on access to fresh, clean water. This has become an issue of public safety in these areas.

Andy’s recent work took him to Iqaluit, Nunavut to design experiments that help test whether or not sampling designs used in temperate systems can prove useful in an Arctic context.

Arctic freshwaters contain unique invertebrate characteristics, where Chironomids, otherwise known as “midges”, are by far the most prevalent family (anywhere from 50-60% of the invertebrate community present).

Using a sub-family analysis of midges, along with family-level identification of all other families (such as blackflies, mayflies, crane flies and mites), Andy and his team were better able to assess community structure and analyze environmental impacts.

Andy used data from 2014, 2015 and 2018 to assess and compare benthic communities in two nearby streams: Apex River and Airport Creek.

  1. Apex River – lies mostly outside of the zone of urban influence, and thereby served as the “pristine” site
  2. Airport Creek – flows directly through the City of Iqaluit and past several known point-source pollution areas such as a decommissioned landfill, a metals disposal area, and an airport

Andy compared and contrasted community structure in both systems to analyze changes throughout the environmental gradient.

The results indicated that invertebrate communities were affected in terms of changes in diversity and overall abundance of families/sub-families present.

Downstream areas (mid-point and mouth) of Airport Creek showed impacted benthic structure, while Apex River retained community complexity throughout the entire river.

This research showed that these methods of assessment are useful to identify the aquatic health of Arctic systems!

Additionally, the methods used were selected intentionally to make assessments relatively easy, so that community groups and scientists would not need a large amount of training to take part.

The biomonitoring programs and related assessments can be relatively easy to replicate with minimal training. This can empower residents in the area to become “citizen scientists” and look after the health of their aquatic systems in arctic regions.

Developing useful and realistic measures to assess water quality in an Arctic context can serve these communities – both now and in the future.

Chironomid (midge)

Arctic freshwaters have been under-studied. There is a need to conduct these types of aquatic health studies to develop a baseline dataset that can be used in future efforts as a benchmark for acceptable, safe water quality metrics.

Thank you Andy for reminding us that water is a resource with absolutely no replacement. Protecting and monitoring water health is less of an option  – but rather, a necessity.  

Here is what Andy had to say about his Trent University experience:

My experiences at Trent were second to none. I had the opportunity not only to study under some fantastic professors, but to get to know them on a personal level as well. Getting to know my teachers proved to be advantageous, leading to my work experiences in the Canadian Arctic and in Northwestern Ontario. For anyone who is ambitious and driven to succeed in the field of environmental sciences I would highly recommend Trent University.