Four years ago, NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) began providing an Experimental Lake Erie Hypoxia Forecast Model to warn stakeholders of low-oxygen upwelling events that can cause water quality problems for over 2 million residents of northern Ohio. Now in its fifth year, this forecast model has turned out to serve additional purposes that NOAA’s scientists hadn’t even considered – including maintaining sustainable fisheries and solving a smelly mystery!
Providing critical warnings to keep drinking water safe
Hypoxia – a state of low oxygen – occurs in the deep waters of Lake Erie’s central basin in July through September of most years. Low-oxygen water is an unfavorable habitat for fish, and may kill bottom-dwelling organisms that provide food for fish. While the hypoxic water generally stays near the lake floor, changes in wind and water currents can create upwelling events, in which this zone of low oxygen is brought to the surface along the coast.
Once it creeps into shallower parts of the lake, hypoxic water can upset drinking water treatment processes at water intakes along the shoreline. Hypoxic upwelling events cause rapid changes in water quality variables such as temperature, pH, dissolved organic matter, iron, and manganese. To maintain the quality of treated water, plant managers must adjust treatment in response to these changes. NOAA GLERL’s Experimental Hypoxia Forecast Model provides several days of advance notice that water quality is changing, so that drinking water plant managers can be prepared to adjust their treatment processes as needed.
Plot twist: Benefiting more than just our water supply
NOAA GLERL’s Experimental Lake Erie Hypoxia Forecast has proven to be incredibly successful in its original goal – but our scientists were surprised to learn that its usefulness didn’t stop there. Recent stakeholder interviews conducted by CIGLR Stakeholder Engagement Specialist Devin Gill revealed that, in addition to helping manage the drinking water treatment process, the forecast has also become an unexpectedly vital tool for managing Lake Erie’s fisheries.
One agency that makes use of the experimental hypoxia forecast is the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The Ohio DNR is responsible for generating population estimates for Lake Erie’s yellow perch and walleye – estimates that ultimately help determine official catch limits to maintain the lake’s sustainable fisheries.
“Large aggregations of fish may seek refuge at the edges of the hypoxic zone,” says Ann Marie Gorman, a fisheries biologist with the Ohio DNR’s Fairport Harbor Fisheries Research Station. “Our office tracks the location of the lake’s cold bottom water using the NOAA GLERL Hypoxia Forecast Model, and we may modify the timing of some of our surveys to minimize the potential impact of hypoxia on the results. Overall, the NOAA GLERL Hypoxia Forecast Model has become an integral tool for our survey planning.”
Understanding fish behaviors in response to hypoxia is important to conducting accurate population surveys of Lake Erie’s fish species. The ability of NOAA GLERL’s hypoxia forecast to warn fisheries managers of potential survey bias from these hypoxic events helps to save time, money, and energy that may have otherwise been used to conduct unsuccessful trawling surveys in hypoxic zones.
Richard Kraus, a supervisory research fish biologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Great Lakes Science Center Field Station in Ohio, also uses the experimental hypoxia forecast for his work with Lake Erie’s fisheries. Kraus explains that in Lake Erie, several cold-water fish species rely on finding refuge in colder, deeper waters of the lake – waters that are not impacted by warmer summer air temperatures. However, the presence of hypoxic zones in these deeper waters can impact how much refuge is available for these fish. As hypoxia reduces refuge habitats for cold-water species, chronic effects on growth and reproduction may develop, and in severe circumstances fish kills sometimes occur. The NOAA GLERL Hypoxia Forecast Model is instrumental in predicting where these potential ecosystem impacts could occur, in turn helping fisheries managers determine sustainable catch limits for each fish species in question.
The experimental forecast was also found to be useful to commercial and recreational fishers, who use the forecast to gauge the distribution of yellow perch in relation to hypoxic zones. Fishers can utilize the forecast on a daily basis to determine where to launch their boats, and where to search for aggregations of fish, depending on the hypoxia forecast for that day.
Plus, it’s not just routine fisheries management and recreation that the Experimental Hypoxia Forecast helps improve. In early September, it helped solve the mystery of a strange, foul smell coming from Lake Erie near Cleveland, Ohio, and fish kills associated with it. These phenomena resulted in many public inquiries regarding suspected gas leaks or pollutant spills. Thanks to the forecast, public officials knew that an upwelling of hypoxic water had recently occurred, likely carrying sulfur and nitrogen compounds that caused the stench, and were able to quickly eliminate other possible causes.
Half a decade in the making
Since it began in 2017, this NOAA project has grown into much more than just a computer model. The Experimental Lake Erie Hypoxia Forecast model was developed as a five-year project (2017-2021) with funding from NOAA’s Coastal Hypoxia Research Program, and is an extension of the Lake Erie Operational Forecasting System at NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services. Co-led by NOAA GLERL research scientists Drs. Mark Rowe and Craig Stow, and CIGLR’s Dr. Casey Godwin, project scientists provide an email update to public water systems, fisheries managers, and other stakeholders ahead of likely hypoxic events that contains links to the experimental forecast website and other useful NOAA webpages.
Partners on this project include Ohio public water systems (including the cities of Cleveland and Avon Lake), NOAA’s National Ocean Service, and the Great Lakes Observing System. Special thanks to Devin Gill from the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research for contributing stakeholder interview findings for this article.