NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

The latest news and information about NOAA research in and around the Great Lakes


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GLERL Ocean(lake)ographer Eric Anderson on watching the Straits of Mackinac

Eric Anderson, GLERL oceanographer, used to study the movement of fluid inside bone tissue — now he studies the movement of water in the Great Lakes.

Eric Anderson is NOAA GLERL’s resident oceanographer (but his Twitter handle is @lakeographer—you should trademark that one, Eric). At its core, his research centers around the movement of water. You might have seen our animations of currents in the Straits of Mackinac, or of meteotsunamis coming across Lake Michigan — he’s the guy behind those computer models.

Some cool things about Eric are that he plays the banjo, that he used to study the movement of fluid inside bone tissue, and that he’s quick to remind us people were watching the Straits of Mackinac millennia before his computer models existed. Read on to learn more cool things!

How would you describe your job?

My research is on hydrodynamics, which is a fancy way of saying the moving physical aspects of the water in the Great Lakes—things like currents, temperatures, ice, and waves. Most of my day is built around looking at measurements of the water and air and then developing computer models that simulate how the lakes respond to different weather conditions. This field of science is particularly helpful in safe navigation of the lakes, responding to contaminant spills, search and rescue operations, and understanding how the ecosystem responds to different lake conditions.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve accomplished in your job?

Maybe the most rewarding has been working on the Straits of Mackinac. It’s one of the most beautiful spots in the Great Lakes, but also one of the most dynamic, with high-speed currents changing every few days, if not hours. A groundswell of attention to the Straits in the last several years has pushed the public to get more engaged and learn about the conditions in the Straits, and I’ve been glad to help where I can.

As part of this work, we’ve found some 1600’s-era [settler] written accounts of the currents in the Straits. We also know that [Indigenous] people have been watching the Straits for thousands of years, and it’s rewarding to continue this thread of knowledge.

What do you feel is the most significant challenge in your field today?

It seems like the hardest thing is to communicate the science. People are starved for information, and there’s a real love out there for learning about the Great Lakes. All we can do is to try and keep the flow of information getting out to the folks who care, and just as important, to those who don’t think they care. When you see environmental science covered in the news, it’s usually reporting on something negative or even catastrophic, which is certainly important, but there are pretty cool discoveries being made routinely, big and small, and those don’t often seem to make it to the headlines. We have to keep working hard to make sure these stories make it out, and at the same time keep our ears open to the concerns that people have for the lakes.

Where do you find inspiration? Where do your ideas come from in your research or other endeavors in your job?

Inspiration is everywhere. Try to hike up to a good vantage point overlooking the lake, like the dunes or a bluff, and not feel inspired. More often, though, inspiration comes from talking with other people, whether scientists, students, or interested members of the public. I can’t think of a time where I’ve given a public seminar and not walked away with a new question or idea to investigate. People’s enthusiasm and bond with the Great Lakes is infectious, and so I try to tap into that as often as I can.

Two meteotsunamis, large waves caused by storm systems, came across Lake Michigan on April 13, 2018. Eric Anderson models meteotsunamis in his role as oceanographer at NOAA GLERL.

How would you advise high school students interested in science as a career path, or someone interested in your particular field?

I took somewhat of a winding career path to get where I’m at with GLERL, working in car assembly plants and then on the nano-fluidic flow inside bone tissue before ending up in physical oceanography. I didn’t really know what I wanted in high school or college, but I knew physics and math were where I felt at home. So I found a way to learn the fundamentals that I’ve been able to apply in each of these jobs, and that allowed me to explore different parts of science and engineering. Not everyone will have the same chances or opportunities, but if you can find a way to really solidify the fundamentals and just as importantly seek out a breadth of experiences, you’ll be in a better position when those opportunities do come along.

What do you like to do when you AREN’T sciencing?

I’m either hanging out with family, playing music, or talking with someone about how I wish I was playing more music.

What do you wish people knew about scientists or research?

By and large, science is curiosity driven, often fueled by the scientist’s own enthusiasm, and in my case also by the interests of the public. Whether it’s a new discovery, or re-codifying or quantifying something that others have observed for millennia, there’s no agenda here other than to understand what’s happening around us and share whatever pieces we can make sense of. I’ll add a sweeping generalization that scientists love to talk about their research, so don’t be afraid to ask.


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Scientists classify the Great Lakes for easier comparison, study and management

It can be tempting to think of the Great Lakes as 5 big bathtubs – 5 uniform masses of water that each face one set of problems, or are each home to one list of fish no matter where you’re dropping a line. But, the Great Lakes cover nearly 100,000 square miles, span a full 10 degrees of latitude and range 1,300 feet in depth. Any environmentalist working on polluted runoff or any fisherman worth his or her (non)salt will tell you: The problems and possibilities in one section of a lake aren’t the same ones you’ll find 50 miles north or 10 miles offshore.

This can be hard for scientists, who need to compare similar regions to get answers to important questions. Are a certain species of fish not thriving because of a nearby source of pollution? Or is it because the habitat isn’t right? You can’t study the effects of pollution in one area, 10 feet deep and near a river mouth, by comparing it to an unpolluted area that’s miles offshore.

So, what can be done? All parts of Lake Erie’s western basin, for example, don’t provide similar habitats. BUT, one part of Lake Erie’s western basin might look a lot like an area in Saginaw Bay. If only one of these similar areas is being impacted by a certain pollutant, that’s a good setup to study the effects of that pollutant, because other factors (like depth or temperature) are being held constant.

Scientists and resource managers have been making this leap for ages – finding areas in the Great Lakes that are relatively alike and comparing them – everything from fish stocking efforts to the spread of invasive species. But now, there’s a tool to make it easier. Scientists have developed what is basically an atlas of ecologically similar areas in the Great Lakes.

A map of the Great Lakes classifies regions that are ecologically similar.

Researchers have developed a classification system for the Great Lakes that groups regions with similar characteristics. Credit Lacey Mason/GLAHF

Based on four main variables (depth, temperature, motion from waves and currents, and influence from nearby tributaries) researchers from multiple institutions (including NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory) organized the Great Lakes into 77 Aquatic Ecological Units (AEUs). The classification system took 6 years to create and incorporates multiple NOAA datasets, including depth, temperature patterns and circulation patterns throughout the lakes.

Each AEU is a chunk of the lakes with its own unique combination of those four variables. The idea is that scientists and conservation professionals working within one type of AEU will be comparing apples to apples.

Ecosystem classification isn’t new – it’s been applied to land and ocean environments before. But, this is the first classification system developed for the Great Lakes.

Catherine Riseng, a researcher with the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, is lead author on the paper. She tells us the work “simplifies a complex ecosystem”.

“It can be used by researchers to help describe and explain existing ecological patterns and by resource managers to facilitate inventory surveys, evaluate the status and trends, and track the effects of human disturbance across different types of ecological units”, she says.

The work was done as part of the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Framework (GLAHF), which is “a comprehensive spatial framework, database, and classification for Great Lakes ecological data.”

The classification data will soon be available for download at https://www.glahf.org/classification/. For now, you can interactively explore the AEUs and related datasets at https://glahf.org/explorer/.


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Leading the way toward solutions to flooding issues in Lake Champlain and Richelieu River System

A project update from GLERL Deputy Director, Jesse Feyen

GLERL has a long track record for modeling and predicting circulation and levels for our Great Lakes waters. Now we are working to apply this expertise in Lake Champlain, a large lake system that is shared with Canada. The lake lies along the New York/Vermont border and flows north into Quebec via the Richelieu River. In 2011, this lake-river system experienced significant precipitation and wind events that raised the levels of Lake Champlain to record levels and caused extensive flooding and damage around the lake and along the Richelieu River.

As a cross-border boundary water, management of the Lake Champlain/Richelieu River system is subject to the International Boundary Waters Treaty. In responding to a reference from the governments of the United States and Canada, the binational International Joint Commission (IJC) is conducting a study exploring the causes, impacts, risks, and solutions to flooding in the basin like during 2011.

The IJC has tapped GLERL to play a lead role in the study given our expertise in modeling the hydrology and hydrodynamics of the Great Lakes and experience working with Canadian partners. As a key expert in the IJC’s Upper Great Lakes Study and the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Study, GLERL Director Deborah Lee was invited to serve as a U.S. member of the project’s Study Board, which provides the overall guidance and direction for the project. Deborah nominated Deputy Director Jesse Feyen to head up the U.S. portion of the study’s Hydraulics, Hydrology, and Mapping Technical Working Group, or HHM TWG.

A GLERL-led team of research partners is building solutions to these flooding issues in Lake Champlain and Richelieu River System. In addition to Lee and Feyen, team members include Integrated Physical and Ecological Modeling and Forecasting (IPEMF) Philip Chu, Drew Gronewold, and Eric Anderson; Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) Dima Beletsky, Haoguo Hu, and Andy Xiao, with support from Lacey Mason; and the Northeast River Forecast Center’s Bill Saunders.

The two priorities of the study are to determine what flood mitigation measures can be implemented in the basin, and to create new flood forecast tools for the system. Current flood models operated by the National Weather Service (NWS) cannot account for the effects of winds and waves on Lake Champlain water levels, which can increase water level by several feet, significantly impacting flooding.

The modeling approach used in this study mirrors GLERL’s work in the Great Lakes. In Lake Champlain, a 3D FVCOM is being built to model water levels, temperature, and circulation; a WAVEWATCH III wave model will be coupled to FVCOM model to predict wave conditions; a WRF-Hydro (Weather Research and Forecasting) distributed hydrologic model will predict streamflow and runoff into the basin. This approach relies on models that are in use at NOAA and can readily be transferred to operations by the NWS and National Ocean Service, both of which have been participating in planning throughout the project.

While flooding issues in the Lake Champlain and Richelieu River system pose steep challenges on both sides of the border, GLERL brings the leadership, technical expertise as well as a “One NOAA” approach that are all essential for leveraging progress.


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Women’s History Month Special: Retiring GLERL Physical Scientist Anne Clites gives us her parting wisdom

A woman with brown hair and a black vest on smiles for the camera.

Anne Clites, GLERL physical scientist, is retiring at the end of March after 35 years with the lab.

At the end of March, Anne Clites, GLERL physical scientist, will retire after 35 years with the lab. Her work can be somewhat behind-the-scenes (things like compiling, archiving and distributing data), but it’s just as essential as what our principal investigators do. She brings continuity, organization, and accountability. She’s contributed enormously to the science we do here, and we thought we’d ask her to share a bit of her wisdom and experience before she goes.

How would you describe your job? How long have you been doing it?

“I started working at GLERL in 1982. As a physical scientist, I’ve worked with a number of project scientists over the years, helping gather data, improve computer models, publish results, and make our products available and understandable to others. Most of the work has involved improving our understanding of the water budget, seasonal prediction of water levels and ice cover.”

Has your job changed over time?

“Technology has changed! When I started working at GLERL, I had to walk to another building to a card punch machine to run my programs. It was several years before we all had PCs on our desks. I was in on the effort to develop our first website and that has certainly changed the way we communicate and distribute data.”

What is the most interesting thing you’ve accomplished in your job? What has been your favorite part?

“I’m proud of my contributions to a lot of journal articles and data products over the years. I know that I’ve helped improve our website to make our data more discoverable. I’ve often felt like a translator between scientists and the public, and tried hard to build a bridge there when it was needed. I really love NOAA’s mission: ‘to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts’ and to share that knowledge with others. It’s important work and I’m proud to have a part in it.”

What advice would you give to young people who are beginning a career in science?

“Everyone should learn to write well! It is so important to be able to communicate what we learn – both with other scientists, and with the public. A good understanding of using data to tell a story won’t hurt, either.”

It’s Women’s History Month, and we’d love to hear some of your thoughts about being a woman in STEM. How do you think you’ve experienced your career differently than men you’ve worked with?

“I think family responsibilities are shared more now than they were 30 years ago, but I think women still do more of the mental juggling, although every family is different. One thing I truly valued about my job is that I had the opportunity to work part time while my kids were little. I was never treated as if my contributions were less important just because I worked part-time. That meant a lot to me. It also allowed me to be a Girl Scout leader, an active parent-teacher organization member and sports parent.”

What do you think the research/academic community can do to attract and retain women?

“Keep offering flexible work schedules and part-time work for women who want to juggle job and family.”

What do you like to do when you AREN’T sciencing?

“Cook, read, get outside, garden, sing, peace and justice work, board games, do anything with my kids and grandkids.”

What do you wish people knew about scientists or research?

“Too many people think of scientific research as something that will never touch their lives, and they are so wrong about that! We need facts to solve these problems! The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s available fresh surface water. That’s way too important to ignore!”


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Scientists are people with questions: a conversation with GLERL limnologist Craig Stow

A man in a baseball cap stands in the GLERL lobby in front of some 3-d bathymetry maps of the Great Lakes

Craig Stow, a GLERL limnologist, says scientists are “people with questions.”

Craig Stow is a Limnologist (that means somebody who studies freshwater systems) at NOAA GLERL. He models nutrients cycling through (Great) lakes. His research is super applicable; notably, he’s part of the team trying to deal with nutrient loads in Lake Erie – he wrestles with the question of how much phosphorous is coming into the lake, and how it gets there.

Read on to see how Craig deals with mental blocks, why science isn’t like the movies, and what he thinks people get wrong about researchers.

How would you describe your job?

“I try to learn about things so that I can usefully apply any enhanced insight I might gain. Currently I’m trying to better understand the separate influences of tributary flow and tributary nutrient concentration on nutrient loads to Lake Erie. We have set new phosphorus load targets and those can be achieved by managing tributary flow, tributary nutrient concentration, or both, but the effects in the lake will differ in ways that are not obvious.”

What is the most interesting thing you’ve accomplished?

“The most interesting things are those that are counter to what you expect a priori. Though it can take a while to come to grips with the realization that you didn’t know what you were talking about at the outset. When I was a master’s student my adviser told me it was good to be humbled; I didn’t expect it to happen so frequently. Astounding revelations are more prevalent in movies than real life — at least in my office. Most of what I accomplish involves incremental insights that nudge the field along.”

Where do you find inspiration? Where do your ideas come from in your research or other endeavors in your job?

“Read a lot, talk to colleagues, recognize unresolved tensions, think really hard, then do something else. Good insights often occur when your mind relaxes following a period of intense concentration.”

How would you advise high school students interested in science as a career path, or someone interested in your particular field?

“Learn to write well. Publishing requires recognizing a good story and telling it effectively. If you can’t express your thoughts clearly and succinctly you will struggle in this field.”

What do you like to do when you AREN’T sciencing?

“I like to play and listen to music, work outdoors, be at home with the family, and grill. And think about fishing. I used to actually go fishing, now I just think about it. I’m usually more successful and don’t jab the hook in my fingers as often.”

What do you wish people knew about scientists or research?

“Science is the collective process of searching for the truth. It occurs by assembling and synthesizing information to generate ideas, and sharing those ideas so that others can corroborate, contradict, or modify them. The peer-reviewed literature is the primary venue for that process; that’s why publication is important. Scientists are the individuals who participate in this process. Most are intrinsically curious, many are really smart, some live an illusion of objectivity, and there are a few charlatans. The successful ones are more tenacious than anything else. There’s a tendency to view scientists as people with answers, mostly they’re people with questions.”


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Great Lakes in winter: Water levels and ice cover

The Great Lakes, along with their connecting waterways and watersheds, make up the largest lake system on the planet—more than 20% of the world’s surface freshwater! Water levels on the lakes change in response to a number of factors, and these changes can happen quickly. Changing water levels can have both positive and negative impacts on shipping, fisheries, tourism, and coastal infrastructure like roads, piers, and wetlands.

Currently, water levels on all of the Great Lakes are above their monthly averages, and have been developing since the spring of 2013, when a record-setting two-year rise in water levels began on the upper Great Lakes. Extreme conditions in spring of 2017 produced flooding and widespread damage at the downstream end of the basin—Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. In case you missed it, check out our infographic on this flooding event.

So, what’s happening now that it’s winter?

As we entered the late fall-early winter of 2017-2018, a warm weather pattern had forecasters looking toward a fairly warm winter. However, in late December, the conditions changed and a much colder than normal weather pattern took many folks living in the Great Lakes by surprise. Much like how water levels can change quickly in the Great Lakes, so can ice cover. Due to frigid air temperatures, between December 20 and January 7, total ice cover on the lakes jumped 26.3%. Lake Erie alone jumped up to nearly 90%!

 

 

After January 7th, ice coverage dropped a bit as the air temperatures warmed, then rose again as temperatures went back down, showing again how vulnerable the lakes are to even the slightest changes. Compare where we are now to where we were 2 years ago at this time, and you’ll easily see how variable seasonal ice cover can be in the Great Lakes.

Image depicting Great Lakes total ice cover on on January 15, 2018, compared to 2017 and 2016.

What’s the outlook for ice and water levels?

Below, you’ll find what GLERL researchers expect to see for ice cover this winter, as well as the U.S. Army Corps’ water levels forecast into Spring 2018. Be sure to read further to find out more about the science that goes into these predictions!

—GLERL’s 2018 Seasonal Ice Cover Projection for the Great Lakes—

On 1/3/2018, NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory updated the maximum 2018 Great Lakes basinwide ice cover projection to 60%. The long-term average is 55%. The updated forecast reflects changes in teleconnection patterns (large air masses that determine our regional weather) since early December 2017—movement from a strong to a weak La Nina, a negative to a positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and a positive to a negative North Atlantic Oscillation. These patterns combine to create colder than average conditions for the Great Lakes.

—Water Levels forecast into spring 2018—

According to the most recent weekly water level update from the U.S. Army Corps, water levels for all of the Great Lakes continue to be above monthly average levels and above last year’s levels at this time. All of the lakes have declined in the last month.  Note that ice developing in the channels and on the lake surface can cause large changes in daily levels during the winter, especially for Lake St. Clair. Over the next month, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron are expected to continue their seasonal decline. Lake St.Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario are expected to begin their seasonal rise.


 

More information on water levels and ice cover forecasting

How are water levels predicted in the Great Lakes?

Forecasts of Great Lakes monthly-average water levels are based on computer models, including some from NOAA GLERL, along with more than 150 years of data from past weather and water level conditions. The official 6-month forecast is produced each month through a binational partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

At GLERL, research on water levels in the Great Lakes analyzes all of the components of the Great Lakes water budget. The information we gather is used to improve forecast models. The infographic below goes into more detail about the Great Lakes water budget.

Image depicting the makeup of water budgets in the Great Lakes

How does winter ice cover affect water levels?

As mentioned in the recently released Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook for the Great Lakes, water levels in the Great Lakes tend to decline in late fall and early winter, mainly due to reduced runoff and streamflow combined with higher over-lake evaporation caused by the temperature difference between air and water. Factors such as surface water temperatures, long stretches of cold or warm air temperatures, and winds all impact the amount of lake ice cover as well as extreme winter events, such as lake-effect snow—which we’ve already seen plenty of this winter—and vice versa. All of these factors influence winter water levels in the Great Lakes. The timing and magnitude of snow melt and spring runoff will be major players in the spring rise.

Looking for more info?

You can find more about GLERL’s water levels research, on this downloadable .pdf of the GLERL fact sheet on Great Lakes Water Levels.

View current, historical, and projected water levels on the Great Lakes Water Levels Dashboard at https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/dashboard/portal.html.

For more on GLERL’s research on ice in the Great Lakes, check out the Great Lakes Ice fact sheet, or check out our website at https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/ice/.

Want to see a really cool graphic showing the extent of the maximum ice cover on the Great Lakes for each year since 1973? You’ll find that here.

 


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#WinterisComing: Along with mountain areas, parts of the Great Lakes are the snowiest places in the U.S.

As the winter months begin, they bring the phenomenon that every Great Lakes resident knows (and either loves or hates): lake effect snow.

Lake effect snow happens while the Great Lakes are still unfrozen and relatively warm. Cold air (usually from Canada) sweeps over them, picking up moisture and warmth on the way. It then drops the moisture as snow downwind.

This might sound a little confusing — how could “warm” lake water result in snow? Well, the warmth from the lakes is only enough to get the moisture from the surface of the lake into the atmosphere. Once the moisture is up in that mass of cold air, it turns into snow and then falls — usually about the time it’s passing over whatever freeway you use for your afternoon commute.

Check out this map of the United States: you’ll notice that things generally get snowier the farther north you go, but that the really dramatic snowfall (average of more than 8 feet annually) occurs in two places: high mountain elevations and land adjacent to the Great Lakes. Many areas in the Great Lakes basin average at least 4 feet annually. You can thank lake effect snow for this.

Map showing average annual snowfall in the contiguous United States.

Map showing average annual snowfall in the contiguous United States.

Notice that the western shore of Lake Michigan and Southeast Michigan/Northwest Ohio are somewhat spared — wind patterns have a lot to do with this. It is not enough to just be next to a Great Lake — the wind has to be blowing your way.

The GIF below shows lake effect snow in action. The black arrows represent wind speed (length) and direction, and the color scale shows snow accumulation. This is model output re-creating a lake effect snow event from December of 2016.

Model output for a lake effect snow event back in December of 2016. Arrows show wind speed and direction and color scale shows snow accumulation.

Researchers at the NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, along with partners from the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), are working on a model that can indirectly improve predictions of lake effect snow through the expected latent heat flux from the lakes. “Latent heat flux” is fancy terminology for that warmth, and associated water, moving from the lakes to the air that we talked about earlier. So, if the latent heat flux is predicted to be high (lots of moisture and warmth being transferred from the lake to the atmosphere), there’s a greater chance of a lake effect snow event.

You can see that model output here, although for now it’s a “nowcast” — a re-creation of the last 5 days. However, forecast data (and data for more lakes) is on the way!