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Biology professor to discuss impact of microplastics in Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

| Linda Tollefsrud and Diane Walkoff

Photo caption: Dr. Todd Wellnitz collects soil samples with former research students Megan Vaillancourt (left) and Monica Dickson during a 2019 research trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Microplastics have been found everywhere scientists have looked for them: in the deepest oceans, on the highest mountaintops and in some of the most isolated places on the planet. How did this form of pollution become ubiquitous and what is it doing to Earth’s ecosystems?

Dr. Todd Wellnitz

Dr. Todd Wellnitz

To find some of the answers, Dr. Todd Wellnitz, a professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and his research students have documented the distribution and abundance of this pervasive contaminant in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

On Thursday, Dec. 2, Wellnitz will present “Microplastics in Northern Lakes: How Big a Problem?” for UW-Eau Claire – Barron County's “Thursdays at the U” series. The talk will be from 12:30-1:30 p.m. in the Blue Hills Lecture Hall (Room 234, Ritzinger Hall) on the Rice Lake campus.

In addition to searching for microplastics in natural habitats and inside diverse organisms, Wellnitz and his students have tried to determine the extent to which people bring microplastics into this popular wilderness area. What they found surprised them. While people clearly impact campsites in the Boundary Waters, they also pollute the area with microplastics from activities that can be hundreds of miles away.

Their research has led them to consider larger questions, such as the apparent indispensability of plastics in modern society, the broken promise of recycling and what can be done for a world drowning in plastic waste.

Wellnitz teaches courses in ecology and has led immersion experiences in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and on Florida’s Gulf Coast, as well as international experiences in Belize, Costa Rica and Argentina. His research investigates the ecology of freshwater systems, and he has spent much of his career studying mountain streams in the Rocky Mountains, the Swiss Alps and Argentine Andes. Each year he mentors undergraduate students engaged in independent and team-based research projects. See related video and story from 2019.

Please note: At all UW-Eau Claire campuses, everyone, including presenters, are required to wear masks indoors.

The “Thursdays at the U” weekly series is free and open to the public thanks to support from the UW-Eau Claire – Barron County Foundation.

For more information about the series, contact Dr. Linda Tollefsrud, professor emeritus of psychology, UW Colleges, at