Bopi smiles from a white boat which has the GVSU logo blurred out on it. In the background is the red Muskegon South Pierhead Lighthouse on the left and Lake Michigan in the distant background.

Bopi Biddanda

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Bopi Biddanda is a professor of water resources with the Annis Water Resources Institute who has been with GVSU since 2002. Biddanda is an active researcher who primarily focuses on the journey of carbon in the biosphere, mainly through aquatic ecosystems, and, in particular, the role of microbes driving the carbon cycle in the hydrosphere. He is also passionate about water, water health, and how water connects all of us in myriad ways.

What was it about your research that made you want to make it your life’s work?

I grew up wanting to be a forest ranger, like my grandfather. But once my parents took me to the seashores, I fell in love with the ocean. So my training is in oceanography. When I came to the Great Lakes, I just fell in love with all the fresh water that we have here and realized this is the real asset of this nation and this continent. And 21% of surface fresh water on the planet in one place is a great system. Having studied the big oceans, I thought, “Maybe I can get a handle on some of the mysteries in the Great Lakes,” and that just kept me going for the last two decades.

Bopi smiles and looks into the inside of the GVSU research vessel

What is going on in the Great Lakes that people may not realize?

Throughout human history, there’s no question that water has shaped where we live, how we live and even if we live. That is fundamental and the tie of the Great Lakes community to the Great Lakes is very intimate. And even though the Great Lakes are big, we realize they can get polluted.

We’ve been assuming for far too long that the Great Lakes are too big to be impacted. But now that we know more, we see that the Great Lakes may have 100 years of residence time, meaning if you empty them, they would fill back with land runoff and rainfall in 100 years, roughly. Lake Michigan is about 100 years. Lake Erie is about 30 years. Lake Superior is about 300 years, and so on, with Muskegon Lake a mere 30 days. So water cycles and comes back, but the pollutants we put in stay on. So those are persistent concerns.

We should pay as we go for the goods and services we receive from nature, especially from water, because water is integral to all nature, not just humans.

A close up of dark blue waves rippling

Is there a difference between how climate change is affecting fresh water versus the oceans?

Ocean science is way ahead of freshwater science. You could argue there are more oceans, there’s more money in the oceans, and oceans, obviously, are so important. About half of the oxygen we breathe is from ocean plankton. But borrowing from space and ocean technologies, freshwater science is catching up very fast. Fresh waters are one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet now, not just the water quality, but also biodiversity; freshwater species are more threatened than marine species.

What is a common misperception about water that you would like to rectify?

I think our classes should include essential lessons about when you turn on the tap, water comes so easily. But where does it come from? What ensures its quality? What ensures its sustainability? I think these are paramount questions. I think increasingly we can’t take it for granted because nearly 2 billion people don’t have enough drinkable, quality water. These are major concerns for humanity, whether it be in terms of poor health and diseases or in terms of precipitating wars and famine and other things.

Personally, I see water as the ultimate global common good. That kind of idea has to come into the classroom so society can grow with it and cherish the resource. There’s no other place in the known universe that has ubiquitous water in all three of its states (solid, liquid and gas), abundant. This is like the perfect home. We have a utopia here, can we keep it? Those are the real long-term questions. Water is central to everything.

As a scientist, you see water in a way that most of us never do. What would people be fascinated with if they could see it for themselves?

This is the 13th year that we are able to look at Muskegon Lake’s water quality at four different depths using a timeseries observatory. And once you begin to see down, you get a whole different perspective. We have been able to see strange things happening in the interior of the lake. For example, we had clues about surface blooms because we could see that, but we didn’t know what really goes on below.

We didn’t know that the bottom water of Muskegon Lake annually undergoes hypoxia, meaning oxygen low enough that fishes choke and invertebrates can’t thrive. Only microbes can exist there. So this kind of habitat degradation occurs annually. The observatory has shown us that even in the winter, there are things that happen in the lake such as nutrient recycling that are very important for resetting the system for the growth cycle to begin again in the coming spring.

We can look at the day-to-day urbanized influence of industries and agriculture on the second largest watershed in Michigan, right here. Everything comes here. This lake is a great sentinel of all the changes that are happening in the watershed. So it’s like a memory book, if you can read it, you can tell a lot of stories. And that’s what we’ve been finding out with the water quality data at different depths. We are now able to read the lake like a symphony. You know, like musicians read notes, ecologists can read numbers and you can really paint that scenario. And over a long time, we should be able to also tell if things like climate change are affecting the lake, shifting these daily and seasonal rhythms differently than before.

Just listening to you talk, it seems we’re pretty lucky to live in Michigan.

We truly are. And that may be the most important realization a Great Lakes community can have. I mean, water is life. What’s wrong with loving life, and caring deeply enough to save it for future generations?