What is Limnology? - Definition, Scope & History

What is Limnology? - Definition, Scope & History

Limnology refers to the study of inland waters such as lakes, rivers, ponds, and others. Limnology is the study of inland waters - lakes (both freshwater and saline), reservoirs, rivers, streams, wetlands, and groundwater - as ecological systems interacting with their drainage basins and the atmosphere. 

Let’s learn about the definition, scope, and history of limnology, and explore the disciplines and uses of limnology.


Our inland waters are vital and important resources. They provide us with drinking water, recreation, bird and wildlife viewing, fishing, land protection, and so much more. Limnology is the study of inland waters and their many different aspects. The word comes from the Greek limne, which means marsh or pond. But limnology is so much more than that. Limnology covers all inland waters, which may be lakes, rivers, and streams, but also reservoirs, groundwater, and wetlands. These are often freshwater systems, but limnology also includes inland salt and brackish, or slightly salty, waters.


Inland waters are diverse and fascinating places. Limnologists, or those who study limnology, need to be familiar with many different aspects of inland waters and their relationships with other water systems, including our atmosphere. For example, limnologists may study:

·         Water flow

·         Oxygen in the water

·         Food web dynamics

·         Animal movement patterns

·         Minerals and other water chemicals

·         Pollution

·         Ecosystem structure

·         The economics of water

·         Light influences

·         Nutrient cycles

·         Plants that live on, in, or near inland waters

·         Sediments

·         Bacteria

·         Human influences

·         Ecosystems

·         Animal communities

·         And so much more

 Disciplines and Uses

Limnology incorporates many scientific disciplines into one, including physics, chemistry, and biology. While the main thread of limnology is water, these water systems are interconnected, host plant and animal life, and both influence and interact with weather patterns.

Limnologists often create models to help predict how certain water systems will function under given conditions. They may also interact with politicians to help guide policy, and they may be utilized during times of crisis, such as after a pollution event or catastrophic storm. We interact with inland waters on a daily basis through our drinking water, weather, and other means, so despite the oceans making up a whopping 96.5% of the water on Earth, clearly, inland waters hold significant importance to our lives!

Because limnology covers so many different disciplines, it may be helpful to think of it as an umbrella. It is broad and far-reaching, encompassing underneath it many different aspects of other sciences and studies. One major branch of limnology is freshwater ecology. This section specifically studies ecological systems and processes in freshwater environments, so any waters that are less than 3 ppm (parts per million). Limnologists in this branch study things such as nutrient cycling, structure of the ecosystem, the physical and chemical properties of the system, and other biotic and abiotic influences.

Another large branch of limnology is freshwater biology. Limnologists in this branch study the organisms in freshwater environments, specifically their interactions and characteristics. This is different from freshwater ecology because freshwater biology focuses on the organisms themselves, not their entire environment.

The study of inland waters dates back to the late 1800s, and credit for its foundation is awarded to two men: Fran├žois-Alphonse Forel and Stephen Alfred Forbes. In 1936, the Limnological Society of America (LSA), was established. This group had members of both freshwater and marine disciplines, and in 1948, the Oceanographic Society of the Pacific and the LSA merged into the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography. Today this group is known as the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, a name that better reflects the different systems its members study. Currently, the society has over 4,300 members from 58 countries.

Forbes and Forel did some groundbreaking work for the field, but today limnologists have far more tools and machines than those two ever could have dreamed of! Things like flow meters, conductivity meters (for measuring salinity), turbidity meters (for measuring the clarity of the water), pH meters, handheld GPS units, sediment core samplers, and other cool toys like this allow limnologists to do their work more efficiently and effectively.

Lesson Summary

Our inland waters are valuable resources that need to be studied and understood. The field of study that deals with inland waters is called limnology. It encompasses both fresh and saline inland waters, which include rivers, lakes, streams, groundwater, marshes, wetlands, and even reservoirs.

Limnologists are the scientists who study limnology, and they are charged with a serious task. Though the common thread of limnology is water, limnology involves physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as geology and atmospheric influences. Some limnologists focus on freshwater ecology, which looks at the ecological system and processes of a freshwater system (> 3ppm), while freshwater biologists focus on the organisms within a freshwater environment.

Limnology dates back to the late 1800s, with the establishment of the Limnological Society of America in 1936. Today, with a membership of over 4,300 individuals, the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, or ASLO, represents limnologists from 58 countries around the world. They are armed with knowledge and tools that they use to study inland waters, be it for scientific research, policy, protection, modeling, disaster monitoring, or any number of other purposes.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post