NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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Close to HOMES – How GLERL’s Great Lakes expertise helps combat flooding in the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Basin

Lake Champlain on September 13, 2017. Credit: European Space Agency, Sentinel-2 satellite

In the world of NOAA, some of the most significant scientific advancements come as a response to natural disasters. Events like hurricanes, wildfires, and floods influence the creation of new solutions to the problems these disasters cause. Over the past decade, NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) has been working with international partners to develop new tools to mitigate flooding on the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River basin.

Lake Champlain is similar to the five Great Lakes as a large lake system that is shared between the United States and 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, causing extensive flooding and damage around the lake and along the Richelieu River.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) is a bi-national organization established by the governments of the United States and Canada under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. It oversees activities affecting the shared waters and waterways along the Canada–United States border to ensure water management is of mutual benefit. In response to the major flooding events of 2011, the IJC created the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River (LCRR) Study Board, whose purpose was to explore the causes, impacts, risks, and solutions to flooding in the basin to better understand and mitigate future flooding events.

Precipitation and wind-driven high water from Lake Champlain floods Colchester Point, VT on May 2, 2011. Credit: Glenn Russell, Burlington Free Press.

Expanding our expertise beyond the Great Lakes

At the beginning of the study, the IJC tapped GLERL to play a lead role given our expertise in modeling the hydrology and hydrodynamics of the Great Lakes and experience working with key Canadian partners. The two priorities of the study were to determine what flood mitigation measures can be implemented in the LCRR basin to reduce flood impacts, and to create new flood forecast tools for the system. 

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 provided the overall guidance and direction for the project. Deborah nominated GLERL Deputy Director Jesse Feyen to head up the U.S. portion of the study’s Hydraulics, Hydrology, and Mapping Technical Working Group.

On the research side, GLERL and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) created an experimental, real-time flood forecast modeling system for the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River basin. At the time the study began, existing flood models could not account for the effects of winds and waves on Lake Champlain water levels, which can increase water level by several feet, significantly impacting flooding. However, this new model – developed to meet the requirements of the National Weather Service meteorologists who routinely provide forecasts of Lake Champlain conditions and particularly floods – now provides improved forecasts for local communities. 

Led by scientists Dan Titze (GLERL) and Dmitry Beletsky (CIGLR), the Experimental Lake Champlain Forecast System combines state-of-the-art hydrologic, hydrodynamic, and wave models through one-way model coupling – the linking of two models so that they can communicate with each other. When they are linked, the models can share their outputs with each other and produce a better prediction in the end. 

The modeling system also used data from a buoy that provided wave conditions from the lake for model validation. Wave conditions are critical to public safety both for recreational and commercial activities on the lake – such as for boats, harbors, and beaches – but also for predicting coastal flood impacts at the shoreline where waves can run up and significantly impact infrastructure. Before the study deployed this wave buoy, no wave observations were available to describe conditions in Lake Champlain.

Left: NOAA buoy in Lake Champlain. Credit: University of Vermont FEMC staff. Right: NOAA GLERL’s partners at the University of Vermont’s Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative (FEMC) deployed the buoy on Lake Champlain in May 2021. Credit: University of Vermont FEMC staff. 

This experimental forecasting system, which began running in 2022, now informs National Weather Service flood forecasts for the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River system and provides information for inundation mapping, recreational boating, and search and rescue efforts. 

Improved flood mitigation for the future

In February 2023, after many years of dedicated work, the LCRR Study Board submitted its recommendations to the U.S. and Canadian governments about the reduction of risks and potential solutions to flooding in the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River basin. The recommendations follow four key themes:

  • Reduce high water levels on the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain. 
  • Impede inflows into Lake Champlain or the Richelieu River through wetland and temporary upstream storage of floodwaters. 
  • Improve flood response (flood forecasting and emergency preparedness). 
  • Enhance floodplain management (adaptation to flooding).

For more on the LCRR Study Board’s final report, check out this summary. NOAA GLERL’s research for this project was published in April 2023.

NOAA GLERL and CIGLR’s work creating the Experimental Lake Champlain Forecast System will undoubtedly lead to better forecasting and safer conditions in the LCRR basin for years to come.

Sunset on Lake Champlain. Credit: Dan Titze, NOAA GLERL.

Partners on NOAA GLERL’s portion of this project include:

  • International Joint Commission Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Study Board
  • Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research
  • University of Vermont Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative
  • University of San Diego Scripps Institute of Oceanography Coastal Data Information Program
  • National Center for Atmospheric Research
  • NOAA Offices:
    • Northeast River Forecast Center
    • Weather Forecast Office Burlington, VT
    • Office of Coast Survey Coast Survey Development Laboratory
    • National Centers for Environmental Prediction Environmental Modeling Center