NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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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!


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Sounds of the storm and coral reef recovery following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico

By Dr. Doran Mason (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory) and Felix Martinez (National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science)

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University of Puerto Rico grad students servicing a hydrophone at the Weinberg site at La Parguera Natural Reserve on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico.  Photo Credit:  Rebecca Becicka, Ph.D. student at University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez

Researchers at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) are exploring the use of sound to monitor and assess the health of coastal ecosystems, most recently focusing on the soundscape created by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico. In collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, Purdue University (a partner university in the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research consortium), and the National Centers for Coastal Science (NCCOS), GLERL has launched a pilot study on developing the long-term use of soundscape. To implement this new approach to monitoring, hydrophones, an instrument in measuring sound, are used to track the response of ecosystems to natural (e.g., tropical storms) and human-induced (e.g., stressors such as excess nutrients, sedimentation, fishing pressure, climate change) disturbances.

In this pilot project, hydrophones have been in place for six months at three sites (see below for Google Earth Map of Magueyes Island, La Parguera, Puerto Rico) at La Parguera Natural Reserve on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico prior to and during the two category 4 hurricanes that pummeled the island. Miraculously, the recorders and data survived the storms and were recovered, providing us with a unique opportunity to listen to the hurricanes and to evaluate how quickly reefs recover from a natural disaster.  

What is a soundscape?  Soundscapes are created by the aggregation of sounds produced by living organisms (invertebrates, fish, marine mammals), non-biological natural sounds (waves, rain, movement of the earth), and sounds produced by humans (boats, coastal roads). Changes in the biological portion of soundscape can provide us with the quantitative data to assess the health of the ecosystem in response to natural and human-induced disturbance.  Thus, our overall goal is to develop quantitative indices of coastal ecosystem health, based on the soundscape to assess the state of the environment, and to understand and predict changes, with application towards ecosystem restoration and conservation efforts. The utility of this approach is the use of a low-cost, remote autonomous technology that holds potential in expanding NOAA’s long-term observational capacity to monitor and assess coastal habitats.

Why GLERL?  As part of a long history of monitoring and research in the Great Lakes, GLERL scientists have cultivated a unique expertise in the development of autonomous remote sensing technology. In the last two decades, Purdue University (a CIGLR partner) has been one of the leaders in the development of terrestrial soundscapes as a critical tool to monitor ecosystem change. More recently, interest has grown in expanding this approach into the aquatic realm.  Building on our relationship with Purdue, GLERL and partners are well positioned to advance use of soundscape ecology to meet NOAA’s mission to protect, restore, and manage the use of coastal and ocean resources. In addition to the pilot study, GLERL is partnering with NCCOS to reach out to other NOAA Line Office programs in efforts to formalize the use of soundscapes within NOAA as a scientific program.  For example, efforts are underway to plan an international workshop to establish the foundational principles and identify research and technology gaps for the use of soundscape ecology.

Why Puerto Rico? Original support for this pilot study came from a congressional allocation for enhancing relationships with the cooperative institutes for the benefit of coral reef restoration and conservation. Given the scientific knowledge accrued from NCCOS’ prior investments in La Parguera, GLERL and its NCCOS partner recognized that Puerto Rico would be a prime location to test and develop the use of soundscapes technology to track and quantify the health of coastal ecosystems.

Google Earth Map-MagueyesIsland-PR

Google Earth Map of Magueyes Island, La Parguera, Puerto Rico showing coral reef locations where the hydrophones were deployed at different depths: Weinberg (shelf-edge) – 75′; Media Luna (mid-shelf) – 45′; Pelotas (inner-shelf) – 35′.  Provided by: Prof. Richard Appeldoorn, University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez

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Colleagues from Purdue University and University of Puerto Rico deploy Media Luna reef site hydrophone for the first time.  Photo credit: Steve Ruberg, NOAA GLERL

IMG_3539

View of La Parguera from Media Luna reef site. Photo credit: Steve Ruberg, NOAA GLERL


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New algorithm to map Great Lakes ice cover

Leshkvich sampling ice

GLERL researcher, George Leshkevich, drilling through the ice in Green Bay, Lake Michigan.

NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) is on the cutting edge of using satellite remote sensing to monitor different types of ice as well as the ice cover extent. To make this possible, an algorithm—a mathematical calculation developed at GLERL to retrieve major Great Lakes ice types from satellite synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data—has been transferred to NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) for evaluation for operational implementation.

Once operational, the algorithm for Great Lakes ice cover mapping holds multiple applications that will advance marine resource management, lake fisheries and ecosystem studies, Great Lakes climatology, and ice cover information distribution (winter navigation).  Anticipated users of the ice mapping results include the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), U.S. National Ice Center (NIC), and the National Weather Service (NWS).

For satellite retrieval of key parameters (translation of satellite imagery into information on ice types and extent), it is necessary to develop algorithms specific to the Great Lakes owing to several factors:

  • Ocean algorithms often do not work well in time or space on the Great Lakes
  • Ocean algorithms often are not tuned to the parameters needed by Great Lakes stakeholders (e.g. ice types)
  • Vast difference exists in resolution and spatial coverage needs
  • Physical properties of freshwater differ from those of saltwater

The relatively high spatial and temporal resolution (level of detail) of SAR measurements, with its all-weather, day/night sensing capabilities, make it well-suited to map and monitor Great Lakes ice cover for operational activities. Using GLERL and Jet Propulsion Lab’s (JPL) measured library of calibrated polarimetric C-band SAR ice backscatter signatures, an algorithm was developed to classify and map major Great Lakes ice types using satellite C-band SAR data (see graphic below, Methodology for Great Lakes Ice Classification prototype).

ICECON (ice condition index) for the Great Lakes—a risk assessment tool recently developed for the Coast Guard—incorporates several physical factors including temperature, wind speed and direction, currents, ice type, ice thickness, and snow to determine 6 categories of ice severity for icebreaking operations and ship transit.  To support the ICECON ice severity index, the SAR ice type classification algorithm was modified to output ice types or groups of ice types, such as brash ice and pancake ice to adhere to and visualize the U.S. Coast Guards 6 ICECON categories. Ranges of ice thickness were assigned to each ice type category based on published freshwater ice nomenclature and extensive field data collection. GLERL plans to perform a demonstration/evaluation of the ICECON tool for the Coast Guard this winter.

Mapping and monitoring Great Lakes ice cover advances NOAA’s goals for a Weather-Ready Nation and Resilient Coastal Communities and Economies, and Safe Navigation. Results from this project, conducted in collaboration with Son V. Nghiem (NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory), will be made available to the user community via the NOAA Great Lakes CoastWatch website (https://coastwatch.glerl.noaa.gov).

 

ice-types

ICECON Scale

Measuring different ice types on Green Bay used to validate the ICECON (ice type classification) Scale in a RADARSAT-2 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) scene taken on February 26, 2017.

 


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Embracing Collaboration and Partnerships: A Way of Life at GLERL

The science community in the Great Lakes region holds a long history of partnership building, extending across jurisdictional, institutional, and disciplinary lines. These partnerships have been evolving in the region for decades as a means to leverage the intellectual capital and financial resources needed to address the environmental challenges (sediment and nutrient loading, toxic pollution, invasive species) threatening the integrity of the Great Lakes.  Agreements and programs established in the region—such as the Great Lakes Water Quality (1972), Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (2005), and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (2010)—are celebrated for their unique partnerships of federal, state/provincial, and tribal and local governments.

GLERL has embraced the Great Lakes tradition of collaboration and partnership building in the development and implementation of its scientific research program since the laboratory’s inception in the mid-1970s.  As a primary organizational goal, GLERL envisions partnerships as a way to strengthen capacity in the conduct of its interdisciplinary research. One way that we accomplish this is by providing a hub for collaboration at GLERL’s Ann Arbor facility—such as space for meetings and workshops to help in the coordination of scientific research and policy—as well as at GLERL’s Lake Michigan Field Station in Muskegon where vessels and laboratory space are made available to support scientific investigations.

Also notable is GLERL’s historical partnership with the NOAA Cooperative Institutes (CIs). The CIs are academic research institutes, frequently co-located within NOAA research laboratories, to create a strong, long-term collaboration among government scientists in the laboratories and the associated academic institutions. Currently, there is great excitement at GLERL for the newly established Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), formerly known as the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research. CIGLR, hosted by the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), collaborates with nine university partners as part of the institute’s Regional Consortium. This collaborative arrangement expands the research capacity, intellectual expertise, and geographic reach of CIGLR and all its partners, while increasing GLERL’s ability to fulfill NOAA’s mission in the Great Lakes.

In keeping with the Great Lakes tradition of collaboration and partnership building, we are pleased to announce the creation GLERL’s new webpage, Collaborating with GLERL. Provided on the webpage is specific guidance on how to pursue collaboration and partnerships with GLERL in areas such as research partnerships, data access, event hosting, vessel operations, as well as internships and fellowships. Through this webpage, we hope to enable our partners to benefit from the valuable resources offered by NOAA GLERL.  We invite you to browse this webpage so you are fully aware of the opportunities that GLERL offers to help keep the Great Lakes great.

Visit the new webpage at https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/about/collaborating.html.


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A message from the Director – Hearts of GOLD: An opportunity for leadership training on diversity and inclusion

By Deborah H. Lee, Director, NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory Heartsof GOLD_Logo

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Hearts of GOLD (Geosciences Opportunities for Leadership in Diversity) in Colorado Springs, Colorado on July 24-25. Hearts of GOLD is a National Science Foundation sponsored project led by a group of six investigators including NOAA’s LaToya Myles of the Office of Oceanic Research, Air Resources Laboratory. The goal of the project is to help leaders in geosciences become champions for diversity by teaching new tools, skills, and attitudes that include learning how to work with colleagues “different” from ourselves.

The driving question posed at the training was, “Why should we value diversity?”  In answering this question and others, we learned that social science research reveals that a diverse workforce can advance core elements for organizational success, such as enhanced innovation through creativity, increased diligence and a committed work ethic, more balanced decision making, robust problem-solving, as well as boosting a company’s bottom line. In looking beyond our organizational boundaries, diversity essentially produces a healthier society by including all of its members.

Our instructors, Drs. Dena R. Samuels and Stephany Rose of University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, led us through two days of often emotional and soul-searching discussion as we examined inclusivity, diversity, and social justice. We learned about implicit bias—a term that describes when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge. This bias often prevents us from achieving diversity by choosing to work with people most like ourselves or associated with positive stereotypes. To get a better sense of what is meant by this, you can assess your implicit biases at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.

We also learned that even if we can overcome implicit bias to achieve a diverse organization, it may not be enough to drive innovation without a culture of genuine inclusivity.  Inclusivity is an intention or policy of including people who are considered “different,” resulting in them being excluded or marginalized, such as those who are handicapped or learning-disabled, or racial or sexual minorities.  We were encouraged to seek out new experiences that challenge our bias, slow down and be present in the moment to catch the bias, and then act differently and practice “priming”—observing positive images of people from stereotyped groups or simply calling to mind counter-stereotypical information. We were reminded that “If you aren’t actively including, you are probably accidentally excluding.”

One topic that struck a personal chord with me was the subject of “microaggression”—an act I had experienced many times over in my career, even recently, as a woman in a non-traditional field.  Microaggressions are subtle words, cues, and/or behaviors that insult, invalidate, or exclude individuals. They are often based on a disadvantaged social identity and often cue stereotypes, labeling one as an outsider.  The recipient often feels disempowered to address the giver of these microaggressions, due to a balance of power, causing the recipient to be impacted cumulatively via a “death by a thousand cuts.”  The intent of the giver is to perpetuate systems of power—to keep those in power, in power, and those oppressed, in oppression.

Another challenging topic was the systemic impacts of privilege and its counterweight, oppression.  Privilege is being treated in ways that make you feel automatically included and valued and is generally an unearned advantage, versus a personal achievement, based on how your identity aligns with what is considered normal and accepted.  It significantly affects performance in academics, interviews, life chances and longevity. To illustrate the impact of privilege, we played a game where each player was allotted 12 pennies, which were then pooled in the center of the table.  When asked a series of questions regarding our experiences of privilege, or lack thereof, and depending on the answers, we were instructed to either to take a penny (benefited from privilege) or put a penny back in the pool (denied privilege).  By the end of the game, some players had “earned” 12 or more pennies from the pool, while others had no pennies or even “owed” pennies. The lessons learned from playing this game were profound, to say the least.

Through my experience at Hearts of GOLD, I became keenly aware that diversity and inclusion are not only important for creativity and innovation, but they are also fundamental for social justice to come to fruition.  The principle of social justice requires that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.  This popular graphic (https://ehhsdean.com/tag/equity/#jp-carousel-959) illustrates the concepts of equality and equity, but makes the case that until barriers to entry are removed, social justice cannot be achieved.

As leaders in the geosciences, we left the class with a stronger awareness and understanding of the challenges we face both within ourselves and externally within our organizations, the skills and tools we could bring to bear, and how to remove the barriers to social justice to create the next generation of geoscientists.