NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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A message from the Director: Great Lakes research highlighted at the 2018 World Environmental and Water Resources Congress

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(Left to right) Cristiane Surbeck, PE, D.WRE,  EWRI President (2018), Associate Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Mississippi; Sridhar Kamojjala, PE, D.WRE, EWRI 2018 Conference Chair, Las Vegas Valley Water District; Deborah H. Lee, PE, D.WRE, Past President American Academy of Water Resources Engineers, NOAA GLERL Director

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.


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Photo story: Taking a closer look at how invasive mussels are changing the Great Lakes food web

The invasion of zebra and quagga mussels in the Great Lakes is taking a toll on the ecosystem. To investigate these ecological changes, scientists from GLERL and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) are doing experimentation on how quagga mussels affect the lower food web by filtering large amounts of phytoplankton out of the water.  Scientists are also investigating how mussel feeding and excretion of nutrients drive harmful algal blooms (HABs) in growth stimulation, extent, location, and toxicity.

The following experimental activities are being conducted under controlled conditions to look for changes in living and nonliving things in the water before and after quagga mussel feeding.

photo of small quagga mussels

Scientists are using quagga mussels captured from Lakes Michigan and Erie to understand how invasive mussels impact the lower food web. Prior to experimentation, the mussels are housed in cages where they graze on phytoplankton in water kept at the same temperature as the lakes. This helps acclimate them to natural lake conditions.

male and female scientists doing research at lab tables

The research team, led GLERL’s Hank Vanderploeg (front right), coordinates the different phases of the experiment. By filtering water before and after quagga mussel feeding, team members learn about the effect of these mussels on levels of phytoplankton (as measured by chlorophyll), nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), particulate matter, carbon, bacteria, and genetic material.

scientists pouring water into large buckets

CIGLR research associates, Glenn Carter and Paul Glyshaw, pour lake water into sample bottles for processing at different stages of the experiment.

female scientist pouring water into small container

GLERL’s, Joann Cavaletto, pours lake water from the graduated cylinder into the filter funnel. She is filtering for particulate phosphorus samples. She also measures total chlorophyll and fractionated chlorophyll based on 3 size fractions; >20 µm, between 20 µm and 2 µm, and between 2 µm and 0.7 µm.

male researcher using instrument next to computer screen

GLERL’s Dave Fanslow, operates the FluoroProbe displaying the level of pigments from different phytoplankton throughout the feeding experiment: pre-feeding of quagga mussel, progression of feeding on an hourly basis, and final measurements at the end of the experiment. The FluoroProbe measurements determine the concentration of pigments, such as chlorophyll, that quagga mussels filter out of the water throughout the experiment.

zoom in of computer screen showing lines and data

The FluoroProbe emits highly specific wavelengths of light using an LED array, which then trigger a fluorescence response in algae pigments and allow the immediate classification of green and blue green algae, cryptomonads, and diatoms.

male scientists filtering water

University of Michigan scientists, Vincent Denef (left and upper right, kneeling in bottom right) and Nikesh Dahal (standing in bottom right), filter water before and after quagga mussel feeding. They are looking at changes in the bacterial community based on the genetic composition of groups, focusing on the variability of toxic production in cyanobacteria in harmful algal blooms. Following the filtration phase of the experiment, they will conduct DNA and RNA sequencing for toxicity gene expression in the cyanobacteria.


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Andrea VanderWoude blends science and art to study the Great Lakes from the sky

A woman sits in a small airplane with headphones and a mic on, looking out the window at a bay on Lake Michigan Below.

Andrea VanderWoude on a flight over Grand Traverse Bay.

Andrea VanderWoude is a remote sensing specialist — that means she’s looking at things from far away. Whether she’s studying harmful algal blooms or rip currents, her job is to pull information out of pictures taken from airplanes or satellites. What makes her extra good at it? She’s got an artistic streak! Read on to learn more. 

How would you describe your job?

As a remote sensor, I use satellites and airborne cameras to monitor the Great Lakes – specifically harmful algal blooms, rip currents and submerged aquatic vegetation. I am an oceanographer working on the Great Lakes and most people wonder how that is possible. The lakes are so large they behave similarly to the ocean. I coordinate flights out of the Ann Arbor, Michigan airport with a contracted pilot that we work with and we put a small hyperspectral camera in the back of the airplane to take photos of the lakes.

Hyperspectral means that there are many discrete [color] bands or channels that are used (these colors are more detailed than the human eye can see). These channels can be used to map harmful algal blooms, which absorb, scatter and reflect light in a specific way. The hyperspectral camera is also able to fly underneath the clouds where passive sensors on satellites are unable to see. My day is spent programming, writing algorithms to process the images and looking at beautiful imagery. It is a wonderful blend of science and art!

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

Every year we fly over the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to monitor submerged aquatic vegetation and specifically for cladophora. As a northern Michigander growing up in that area, it is always amazing to see that area from the sky and to dream about hiking the Manitou Islands again. I also enjoy contributing to aiding the mapping of submerged aquatic vegetation in an area that is personally important to me.

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

The most significant challenge I think is keeping up with the changing technology at the speed it is developing at this time. We are working on getting our new hyperspectral camera on an unmanned aerial system (UAS) for rapid response and I am really interested in using UAS’s for frequent monitoring of rip current troughs in the Great Lakes.

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

I found my inspiration from growing up on the lakes and my parents always made a point of being on the water during all times of the year, either on Lake Michigan or Lake Superior. I have always felt connected to the water and jump in the lake during every month of the year, as a surfer on the Great Lakes. My ideas come from the public and what public needs could be supported. While living on the west side of Michigan, I have really seen the effect of rip currents and was recently stuck in one myself. It was a scary event and even furthered my desire to help warning and detection of rip currents.

How would you advise young women interested in science as a career path, or someone interested in your particular field?

I would advise women to get outside. When asked this question, people frequently turn towards an answer that involves STEM involvement but for me, and I think this also rings true for my Michigan Tech cohorts from undergrad, it was getting outside and learning about the natural world that sparked my interest in science. I was allowed to watch a limited amount of television as a kid and my mom would send me outside to play in the woods. I would spend my time creating forts around trees in the woods or we would go to the lake to swim for hours. This love of the outdoors continued through my undergraduate and graduate degrees with a curiosity to learn how the earth was formed, different rock types or how ocean dynamics and biology could be measured from space.

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

I love to bake, learn about different plants, go rock hunting, trail running, rustic camping, stand up paddle boarding and I am newly returning to surfing but on the Great Lakes. I also spend an enormous amount of time with my boys on the beach, searching for cool rocks or treasures on the beach.

What do you wish people knew about scientists or research?

Many scientists also have an artistic outlet as well as their science life. It creates a life-balance. I personally find balance spending my free-time creating art from found objects on the beach, drawing, painting and baking unique pastries. Constantly a life in motion, as a pendulum between science and art.

Dr. Andrea VanderWoude is a contractor and remote sensing specialist with Cherokee Nation Businesses. She is currently working with researchers from NOAA GLERL and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research.


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Casting a high tech sampling net to learn more about the Great Lakes ecosystem

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Researchers at GLERL are using a new tool, a MOCNESS, to study the Great Lakes.

In the Great Lakes, communities of plants and animals vary depending on where and when you look. They are dispersed up and down and all around in the water, making it tricky to collect them for research studies. To answer questions about these organisms and how they interact in the Great Lakes ecosystem, scientists from NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and CIGLR (Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research) are using a new high tech sampling tool called a MOCNESS (Multiple Opening and Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System).

GLERL’s MOCNESS is the first of its kind to be used in a freshwater system. Scientists are hopeful that this technology will lead to new discoveries about the Great Lake ecosystem, such as where plankton (microscopic aquatic plants and animals) live and what causes their distributions to change over space and time. The MOCNESS will also help scientists learn more about predator-prey interactions that involve zooplankton (microscopic aquatic animals), phytoplankton (microscopic aquatic plants), and larval and juvenile fishes.

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A closer look the MOCNESS (Multiple Opening and Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System)

Keeping track of changes in plant and animal communities in the Great Lakes over time is important, especially with changes in climate, the onslaught of invasive species, and land use practices causing increased nutrient runoff into the lakes.

The MOCNESS is a big improvement over the traditional single mesh sized sample collection nets. The sampling system provided by this new tool has a series of nets of different mesh sizes to collect different sized organisms (see a few examples in the gallery below). The operator can remotely open and close these nets, much like an accordion. At the heart of the system is a set of sensors that measure depth, temperature, oxygen, light levels, and the green pigment found in algae, Chlorophyll-a. Because this data can be viewed in real time on the vessel, the operator can better determine what is going on below the water surface and choose where and when to sample different sized organisms.

Here are some of the key questions that the scientists hope to answer using this advanced technology:

  • How do plankton and larval fish respond to environmental gradients (water temperature, dissolved oxygen, UV radiation) over the course of the day, season, and across years?
  • What are the major causes for changing distributions of the animals across space and over time (long-term, seasonal, 24-hour cycle)?
  • How do these changes in affect reproduction, survival, and growth of individuals and their communities?

The MOCNESS has been tested in the waters of lakes Michigan and Huron for the past three years. The team, led by Dr. Ed Rutherford, is supporting GLERL’s long term study of the Great Lakes food webs and fisheries. “The MOCNESS will enhance the ability of our scientists to more effectively observe the dynamics of Great Lakes ecosystem over space and time—a critical research investment that will pay off for years to come,” says Rutherford.

This year, the team is actively processing samples that were collected in the spring and will continue to collect more samples through the fall. The MOCNESS will support ongoing ecological research on the Great Lakes and the results will be shared with others around the region who are working to make decisions about how to manage Great Lakes fisheries and other water resources.

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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.