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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