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If you live in the Great Lakes basin and have been on or even near a road recently, you might be feeling unreasonably ragey at the mere mention of lake effect snow. We get it. But bear with us, because we’re doing some cool science we’d like to tell you about. It may even make your commute easier someday, or at least more predictable.
GLERL scientists are working with researchers at the University of Michigan’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), the National Weather Service, and NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory (ESRL) to make lake effect snow forecasts in the Great Lakes better.
NOAA’s high resolution rapid refresh (HRRR) model is the most commonly used weather model for predicting lake effect snow. An experimental version runs on a beastly high-performance computer at ESRL in Colorado, and predicts a whole list of atmospheric variables (including snowfall) every 15 minutes. The model relies on water surface temperature data, collected via satellite, to make its predictions. It’s important to give the model accurate water surface temperatures to estimate evaporation across the Great Lakes, since it is the main driver of lake effect snow.
Unfortunately, satellite temperature data has limitations. If clouds keep satellites from measuring the temperature at a specific location, the weather model will just use the most recent measurement it has. Since it’s especially cloudy in the Great Lakes during the lake effect snow season (late fall and early winter), that data could be days old. Because lake temperatures are changing quite rapidly this time of year, days-old data just doesn’t cut it.
As it turns out, GLERL already has a model that predicts Great Lakes surface temperature pretty well. The Great Lakes Operational Forecast System (GLOFS) spits out lake surface temperatures every hour. If we tell the weather model to use GLOFS output instead of satellite data, it has the potential to do a far better job of forecasting lake effect snow.
Linking two models like this is called “coupling”. GLOFS actually already uses input from HRRR—wind, air temperature, pressure, clouds and humidity data all inform GLOFS’ predictions. We’re just coupling the models in both directions. HRRR will send its output to GLOFS, GLOFS will “talk back” with its own predictions of water surface temperature (and ice cover), and HRRR will produce a (hopefully) more informed prediction of lake effect snow.
Initial results are promising. We used the coupled models to do a ‘hindcast’ (a forecast for the past) to predict lake effect snow for a major event over Lake Erie in November of 2014. They did a significantly better job than without coupling. The figure below shows the difference.
You’ll notice a band of blue on the southeastern edge of Lake Erie, indicating that the coupled models predicted less lake effect snow in that area. There’s a band of orange directly to the north of it, where the coupled models predicted more lake effect snow. What you’re seeing is the coupled model predicting the same band of snow, but further north, closer to where it actually fell.
That storm slammed the city of Buffalo, New York, killing 13 people. Better lake effect snow predictions have the potential to save lives.
GLERL and partners will be doing further testing this winter, and if it works out, the model coupling will be carried over in research-to-operations transitions.
It’s nearly winter here in the Great Lakes—our buoys are in the warehouse, our boats are making their way onto dry land, and folks in the lab are working hard to assess observed data, experiments, and other results from this field season.
The harmful algal bloom (HAB) season is also long over in the region. The final Lake Erie HAB Bulletin was sent out on Oct. 11, as the Microcystis had declined in satellite imagery and toxins decreased to low detection limits in samples. In the seasonal assessment, sent out by NOAA’s Centers for Coastal Ocean Science on Oct. 26, it was determined that the season saw a relatively mild bloom—despite its early arrival in the lake—and the bloom’s severity was significantly less than that which was predicted earlier in the season. These bulletins and outlooks are compiled using several models. Over the winter, the teams working on the models take what they learn from the previous season, and update their models for future use.
Back in the lab, the HABs team—researchers from both GLERL and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR)—will spend the winter analyzing data they collected through a variety of observing systems. This summer was packed with the use of new observing technologies, like hyperspectral cameras and the Environmental Sample Processor (in case you missed it, check out this fun photo story of the experimental deployment of a 3rd generation ESP). In addition, GLERL and CIGLR staff maintained a weekly sampling program program, from which scientists are analyzing and archiving samples and conducting experiments.
This lab work is super important for understanding the drivers of toxic algae in the Great Lakes. For instance, in a new study released this month, researchers looking at samples from previous years found that “ . . . the initial buildup of blooms can happen at a much higher rate and over a larger spatial extent than would otherwise be possible, due to the broad presence of viable cells in sediments throughout the lake,” according to the lead author Christine Kitchens, a research technician at CIGLR, who works here in the GLERL lab. This type of new information can be incorporated into the models used to make the annual bloom forecasts.
As you can see, our work doesn’t end when the field season is over. In spring 2019, when the boats and buoys are back in the water and samples are being drawn from the lakes, researchers will already have a jump on their work, having spent the winter months analyzing previous years, preparing, and applying what they’ve learned to the latest version of the Experimental HAB Tracker, advanced observing technologies, and cutting-edge research on harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes.
I had the pleasure of attending the European Large Lakes Symposium (ELLS) – International Association of Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) 2018 international conference entitled “Big Lakes, Small World” during the week of September 23-28, 2018 in Evian, France on the shores of Lake Geneva.
This symposium was notable for many reasons, including being the first IAGLR meeting held outside of North America, in conjunction with the 5th European Large Lakes Symposium. I was impressed with the strong Great Lakes presence at ELLS. In addition to myself and Philip Chu representing the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), colleagues from the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR)—Tom Johengen, Dmitry and Raisa Beletsky—also attended. There were also a number of our Laurentian Great Lakes partners from around the basin participating in the symposium.
Like French cuisine, the conference “menu” was jam-packed with scientific gourmet entrees, which we gorged on each day from 8:45 in the morning until after the poster session concluding at 7:00 each evening. The conference was held in the historic Palais Lumiere (below), formerly a bathhouse, circa 1902, converted into a convention and cultural center in 2006—where better to hold a conference focused on water?
Presentations featured an array of topics, including the chemical, physical, and biological aspects of lakes exotic as the Amazonian floodplain lakes and Russia’s Lake Peipsi, as well as those large lakes familiar to us, such as the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, and Lake Tahoe. Common issues of concern raised during the symposium involved the dynamic changes caused by multiple stressors, namely, increasing temperature, human populations, invasive species, and harmful algal blooms. One observation that I’m excited to report is the number of times NOAA data, products, and services were referenced in talks—a telltale sign that scientists worldwide are relying on NOAA expertise. Items ranged from a Great Lakes sticker on monitoring equipment to the use of graphics like NOAA global surface temperature maps and GLERL food web charts (twice!). I also spotted a quote pulled from our 5-year science review and even one from our venerable Craig Stow (see image below). I counted at least 18 presentations that cited a connection to NOAA.
As a Great Lakes stakeholder attending this international symposium, I would like to convey to our Great Lakes partners from around the region that we, as a community, can take pride and satisfaction that our daily work results in global impact on large lakes—small world!
Dave Fanslow is a GLERL biologist of 25 years. He’s basically done it all, but these days he takes care of the lab’s fluoroprobe – a special instrument that measures different types of algae using light beams. Read our interview with Dave to learn more about the fluoroprobe, along with a decades-old scientific mystery that still haunts him and a fear he had to overcome on the job.
How would you describe your job?
My job is to support the principal investigators with technical know-how in the laboratory. I spend a lot of my day working on instruments right now – the flowcam and the fluoroprobe — which are both used to assess and describe HABs, or harmful algal blooms.
The fluoroprobe is a new device that uses LED lights that trigger a response from the algae, which have unique pigments in them that respond to very distinct wavelengths – so it’s able to distinguish between types of algae simply by flashing an LED light as you pull it through the water. It first came out in about 2014. We had one of the first here at GLERL.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve accomplished in your job?
The most interesting thing that I worked on was actually an unresolved question, the disappearance of the Diporeia from Lake Michigan. There was an amphipod organism called Diporeia that is still present in tiny numbers but used to be really common, and was the basis for the lower food web in Lake Michigan prior to the expansion of quagga mussels. In the mid-90’s, those organisms plummeted from numbers of around 10,000 per square meter down to practically zero in the large majority of the lake.
There was some assumption of effect by zebra mussels and quagga mussels, but we never did really figure that out. The change in the food web was occurring anyway, where quagga mussels were going to take over and dominate the system…so the exact reason for the disappearance of the Diporeia didn’t really matter in the ultimate outcome. But, it was a mystery that piqued my interest and I wish we had been able to describe it. It may have been relevant for some other instance. If it was a disease, if it was an invertebrate disease that was introduced by some other invasive species, that’s a form of microbiological pollution, and it would’ve been nice to nail that down and figure that out.
What do you feel is the most significant challenge in your field today?
The hardest part about doing what we do is the disconnect that I sometimes feel exists between policymakers and scientists. And, I know that’s something that scientists and researchers have struggled with forever, it’s not new, and it’s an ongoing problem to communicate the issues and hope that policymakers make good decisions based on good information.
Where do you find inspiration? Where do your ideas come from in your research or other endeavors in your job?
Most of my inspiration comes from encounters with the public, family and friends who are invariably enthusiastic and concerned about the Great Lakes. People in Michigan in particular, it’s part of our identities, and so that’s where I get my motivation because I know people care.
There’s a fun story about a fear you had to overcome to do this job. Can you tell us about that?
When I first got the job interview, I was told that they wanted me to do scuba diving to collect zebra mussels. This was at the very beginning of the zebra mussel invasion in 1992. I wasn’t super comfortable with swimming and the water, but I thought I would check it out. So I did my research, read about it, went to the pool and practiced, and said yeah I’ll take the job. Then I got trained at NOAA diving headquarters in Seattle where they have retired Navy Seals conducting the training. Then, I conducted over 500 dives over the next 6 or 7 years, mostly related to collecting zebra mussels and then also in the early stages of the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary, observing some of the wrecks and establishing moorings up there.
How would you advise young people interested in science as a career path, or someone interested in your particular field?
My general advice would be that they be flexible in terms of not narrowing down their discipline too much until they get out in the field and discover what the opportunities are. I know that in my career, what I have worked on, the area of technical expertise has ranged wildly over the 25 years I’ve been at GLERL. From picking bugs initially, to measuring lipid content, to measuring enzyme content in mussels and Diporeia…to now I’m working with electronic instruments. So, be flexible.
What do you wish people knew about scientists or research?
Well, one thing I think that people tend to assume about scientists is that they’re eggheads who are narrowly focused on their own work to the exclusion of the rest of the big questions about what’s going on in the environment and in society in general. So, scientists are well-rounded and multi-dimensional people too.
What do you like to do when you AREN’T sciencing?
When I’m not at the lab I have raced my bike a lot over the years, starting when I was an undergraduate. I am now kind of transitioning into middle age and doing other things like gardening and canoeing and fishing. Usually it involves being outside in the environment and making observations about the plants and the bugs and the weather and the things that are around me. We have a place on Lake Superior, and just being there and seeing the change in the weather from day to day and hour to hour is a blast; it’s one of my favorite things.
In late July and early September, during the peak of the 2018 harmful algal bloom in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, NOAA GLERL, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) and CIGLR researchers teamed up with a group of scientists and engineers from the Monterey Bay Research Institute (MBARI). Their mission: to test how well a third-generation environmental sample processor (3GESP), mounted inside a long-range autonomous underwater vehicle (LRAUV), can track and analyze toxic algae in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. You can read more about the purpose of this project in this great news story by MBARI’s Kim Fulton-Bennett.
Below is a photo story showing all (well, much) of the hard work that went into this test deployment.
First, the new gear had to be shipped from California to the GLERL laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
So. Many. Moving. Parts.
Now, the team is ready to head out to Lake Erie. Here’s where things start to get exciting!
Makai and the team spent nearly two weeks tracking, sampling, adjusting, and learning about using this technology to track algal toxins in Lake Erie.
Remember when we said this Lake Erie mission will be different than the ones the team has performed in Monterey Bay? Well, here’s one example of how.
Once the deployment was over, the research didn’t stop there.
By Deborah H. Lee, Director, NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory
Recently, I had the opportunity to bring NOAA in the Great Lakes to the 2018 World Environmental and Water Resources Congress. The conference, held in Minneapolis the first week of June, brought together of several hundred civil engineers and members of the Environmental Water Resources Institute (EWRI). The Institute is the largest of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 9 technical institutes, with about 20,000 members serving as the world’s premier community of practice for environmental and water-related issues.
As the invited keynote luncheon speaker, I presented, “Keeping the Great Lakes Great: Using Stewardship and Science to Accelerate Restoration.” In keeping with this year’s theme of “Protecting and Securing Water and the Environment for Future Generations,” my focus was NOAA’s science and restoration success stories, highlighting the many accomplishments of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
I took the audience on a virtual tour of NOAA’s most exciting and innovative projects. Among those discussed were Areas of Concern, preventing and controlling invasive species, reducing nutrient runoff that contributes to harmful/ nuisance algal blooms, restoring habitat to protect native species, and generating ground-breaking science.
I purposefully took a multimedia approach in reaching out to the EWRI community, recognizing that not all may be familiar with the Great Lakes and NOAA’s role in the region. To keep the audience engaged and entertained, several short videos were integrated throughout my talk, including the Telly award-winning “NOAA in the Great Lakes” and the short animation “How Great are the Great Lakes?” Three video clips on Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects that highlighted the positive environmental and economic impacts of NOAA’s work were also incorporated.
Overall, I see my participation in this high profile conference as a great opportunity to raise awareness on the Great Lakes and NOAA’s mission, and was very pleased with the interest and enthusiastic response to my presentation. In looking ahead, I will be serving as EWRI’s next vice-president beginning this October and then sequentially as president-elect, president and past president in the following years. I look forward to continuing to work as steward for Great Lakes issues and advancing NOAA’s work in the region.