Limnology is a discipline that concerns the study of inland aquatic ecosystems (whether freshwater or saline, natural or manmade), including the biological, physical, chemical, geological, ecological, and hydrological aspects of lakes, reservoirs, ponds, rivers, wetlands, and groundwater. At times, and historically, limnology is more specifically defined as the study of lakes and open reservoirs (International Year of Freshwater 2003; Marcus 1959), or as the study of freshwater systems (European Environment Agency 2006), or is limited to the study of physical and chemical elements but not the biological elements (Strom 1929). However, the broader and generally accepted conception of limnology involves the study of all inland aquatic ecosystems and including the biological aspects (Brezonik 1996; Strom 1929; Wetzel 2003).
Limnology is a relatively new science, but people have had a long fascination with inland aquatic ecosystems, which they have depended upon for water, transport, and food, as well as a source of aesthetic joy and recreation. Human fascination and curiosity has manifested in this integrated science that synthesizes such diverse disciplines as biology, chemistry, geology, mathematics, and physics.
In its modern definition, limnology is sometimes considered synonymous with freshwater ecology. However, Wetzel (2003) recognizes a distinction based on the fact that limnology is not limited to freshwater systems:
Wetzel (2003) further restricts the definition of freshwater biology to the study of the organisms themselves.
Limnology traditionally is closely related to hydrobiology, which is concerned with the application of the principles and methods of physics, chemistry, geology, and geography to ecological problems.
François-Alphonse Forel (1841-1912), a Swiss scientist, established the field of limnology with his studies of Lake Geneva. Forel is considered the "founder of limnology."
Born in Morges on Lake Geneva, Forel worked as a professor of medicine at the University of Lausanne. But his real love was the lake; his investigations of biology, chemistry, water circulation, and sedimentation, and most importantly their interactions, established the foundation of a new discipline.
In his chief work, Le Léman, published in three volumes between 1892 and 1904, he named his activity limnology in analogy with oceanography. Forel discovered the phenomenon of density currents in lakes, and explained seiches, the rhythmic oscillations observed in enclosed waters.
The term limnology stems from Greek limne (marsh, pond, lake) and Latin limnaea (thing pertaining to a marsh) (Wetzel 2003).
The development of the science of limnology in North America is considered to be be entwined with the careers of Edward Asahel Birge and Chancey Juday (Beckel 1988). It is their partnership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that substantially laid the foundations of limnology in North America (Beckel 1988). Arthur Birge, who had studied briefly under Louis Agassiz, first came to the University of Wisconsin in 1875, but it was not until more than two decades later that his work became limnological, when he studied the physical and chemical conditions controlling the seasonal distribution of zooplankton at Lake Mendota. (Beckel notes that previously he studied zooplankton, indicating that the field of limnology is more than just a biological study.) Birge began to partner with Chancey Juday around the turn of the century, and their partnership lasted for four decades. Their first paper together was published in 1980, but their first major paper came in 1981 with a classic publication on dissolved gases, "The inland lakes of Wisconsin: The dissolved gases of the water and their biological significance" (Beckel 1988). Juday would become the first president of ASLO (Advancing the Science of Limnology and Oceanography), which was then the Limnological Society of America.
Another major figure in limnology is George Evelyn Hutchinson (1903-1991), a British-American zoologist who is known for his studies of freshwater lakes and considered the "father of modern limnology." He was born and educated in England, but gained fame at Yale University, where he joined the faculty in 1928. His illustrious career at Yale lasted for forty-three years, and he became a US citizen in 1941.
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