Rolf Vinebrook, UAlberta – Ecological Surprises

Rolf Vinebrook

Human behavior is impacting climate change.

Rolf Vinebrook, biologist at the University of Alberta, discusses his research focusing on inland lakes.

Rolf Vinebrook‘s early research examines the impacts of acidification on the stability of boreal lake communities. He then shifted his focus during his PhD towards stratospheric ozone depletion and the effects of ultraviolet radiation on alpine lake communities. Thereafter, Vinebrook began studying the effects of climate change on both boreal and mountain lakes. His research group’s interests have progressed towards investigation of how anthropogenic stressors (e.g., extreme climatic events, invasive species, air pollution) often interact to generate very unexpected cumulative impacts or “ecological surprises.” They use a combination of paleolimnology and monitoring of arctic, boreal, mountain, and prairie lakes to develop hypotheses regarding these non-additive net effects of stressors, which they then typically test using a variety of experimental approaches.

Ecological Surprises


Human activities are accelerating the rate of global change, thereby challenging the living world to adapt or perish. Although species have long evolved to tolerate natural disturbances, they are often ecologically naïve when it comes to coping with exposure to novel and rapid perturbations, termed “stressors.”

 These stressors can range from extreme climatic events to chemical pollutants:  And as a result, ecosystems are often exposed to not only one, but multiple stressors. Most importantly, interactions occur among stressors, which alter their expected single effects. Consequently, their joint effects are highly unpredictable based on our existing scientific knowledge.  These unexpected net effects of multiple stressors are therefore often referred to as “ecological surprises”.

My main research interest is on the cumulative impacts of stressors on the biodiversity and ecosystem functioning of mountain and prairie lakes. In particular, we are interested in the ecological mechanisms that determine whether food webs respond synergistically or antagonistically when stressed by extreme environmental changes.  Also, we are beginning to examine the potential for biological adaptation to chronic exposure to stressors. 

We use several approaches to address our research goals, including biomonitoring of lakes, paleolimnology, and mesocosm experiments, which enable us to develop and test hypotheses regarding resistance and adaptation of primary producers and their consumers.  To date, we have discovered many ecological surprises by drought, higher temperatures, exotic sportfish, and air pollution.