What is Limnology? - Definition, Scope & History

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  • 0:02 Definition
  • 1:21 Disciplines and Uses
  • 2:58 History
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

The study of inland waters is an important one and includes many different scientific disciplines. In this lesson, you'll learn about limnology, its broad reach into various sciences, and how it got to where it is today.


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.

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