Ice coverage has reached a record low in the Great Lakes for this time of year. As of February 13, 2023, only 7 percent of these five freshwater lakes was covered in ice. Read the full story on NOAA Research.
Underwater robots significantly advance our ability to study Lake Erie’s harmful algal blooms
Newly published research from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), and partners reveals that using underwater robots could significantly advance scientists’ ability to study the harmful algal blooms (HABs) that appear in the Great Lakes and oceans every summer. You may remember reading about NOAA’s collaborative fieldwork in 2019 that used these robots to detect toxins in Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom. Three years later, the findings from this pioneering research come bearing good news!
What are HABs, and how do we study them?
HABs occur when colonies of algae grow out of control and produce toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. Western Lake Erie in particular has been plagued by intensified HABs over the past decade. These blooms consist of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, which are capable of producing toxins that endanger human and animal health, compromise drinking water supplies, foul coastlines, and impact communities and businesses that depend on the lake.
The underwater robot used in this research project is known as a long-range autonomous underwater vehicle, or LRAUV. As the name suggests, the LRAUV is built to travel long distances beneath the water’s surface, collecting data for an extended period of time. LRAUVs are useful research tools, as they can collect high-quality data more efficiently and cost-effectively than scientists taking samples from a ship or along the shore. They can be deployed day and night in all weather conditions, and can provide more detailed information to researchers and drinking water managers than other monitoring methods.
For this project, NOAA and CIGLR teamed up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and university partners to equip an LRAUV with a 3rd Generation (3G) Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) — a mobile version of what has previously been known as NOAA’s “lab in a can.” The 3G ESP’s job is to measure microcystin, a potent liver toxin produced by the cyanobacteria that cause harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes. In just a few hours, the 3G ESP can collect and analyze water samples from the bloom with the same methods that scientists use to analyze samples back at the lab. It does this with the use of ‘omics, a collective suite of technologies used to analyze biological molecules such as DNA, RNA, proteins, or metabolites. These technologies can be used to identify the algal species that produce HABs, understand their behavior, and predict shifts in their population structure.
Did this robot step up to the challenge?
Before widely adopting the use of the LRAUV-3G ESP to study Lake Erie HABs, scientists had to ensure that the data these instruments collect is accurate and reliable. A main goal of the new publication was to assess how dependable the LRAUV-3G ESP’s data is compared to data that was collected and analyzed by humans.
The authors used a variety of parameters to assess the vehicle’s performance of ‘omics tests on samples it collected from the HAB. They ultimately found that the LRAUV-3G ESP successfully performed flexible, autonomous sampling across a wide range of HAB conditions, and the results indicated equivalency between autonomous and manual methods. In fact, no significant differences were found between LRAUV-3G ESP and manual sample collection and handling methods in the 12 parameters tested. In other words, this robot passed the test!
One of the most exciting aspects of this research is that it shows that scientists can use an autonomous sampling platform to replicate traditional ship-based sampling, and they can do so in a particularly challenging environment (Lake Erie’s shallow western basin) where HABs are a serious health concern. Using this instrument in Lake Erie’s shallow waters presented another challenge for the scientists involved. In response to the lake’s challenges, researchers worked on the LRAUV’s buoyancy to ensure that the instrument didn’t drag across the ground. With this technology – sampling DNA and measuring toxins on an autonomous platform – NOAA and partners may be able to provide an early warning system for HABs in the future.
Partners on this research came from far and wide to conduct this important research:
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML), Ocean Chemistry and Ecosystems Division
- NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory
- NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS)
- NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center
- Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), University of Michigan
- Northern Gulf Institute, Mississippi State University
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)
- Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Michigan
Explore more photos of this research on NOAA GLERL’s Flickr page.
Decades in the making, NOAA’s newest Lake Superior and Lake Ontario forecast systems become fully operational
Did you know that NOAA operates a forecasting system that predicts water conditions on the Great Lakes? Whether you’re wondering about a lake’s temperature, currents, or water level changes, NOAA’s got you covered! This fall, NOAA implemented newly updated versions of the Lake Superior and Lake Ontario portions of this system, and added ice forecasts to all five lakes.
GLOFS forecasts Great Lakes conditions
The publicly available Great Lakes Operational Forecast System (GLOFS) is a NOAA automated, model-based prediction system aimed at providing improved predictions of these conditions in the five Great Lakes (Erie, Michigan, Superior, Huron and Ontario) for the commercial, recreation, and emergency response communities. GLOFS models use current lake conditions and predicted weather patterns to forecast the lake conditions for up to five days (120 hours) in the future. GLOFS predictions enable users to increase the margin of safety and maximize the efficiency of commerce throughout the Great Lakes.
NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) and National Ocean Service (NOS) work together to run GLOFS operationally on NOAA’s High Performance Computing System. By running on NOAA’s High Performance Computing System, GLOFS has direct access to National Weather Service operational meteorological products that are required for reliable and timely operations.
A major update for Lakes Ontario and Superior
A key goal of NOAA’s Research branch is to continually make forecasts better, and GLERL scientists play a major role in improving the models that constitute GLOFS. Like the rest of GLOFS, the Lake Ontario and Lake Superior portions – Lake Ontario Operational Forecast System (LOOFS) and Lake Superior Operational Forecast System (LSOFS) – were originally based on the Princeton Ocean Model. As of October 2022, they’ve now been upgraded with higher-resolution versions that are based on a newer computer model.
The new LOOFS and LSOFS use the Finite Volume Community Ocean Model (FVCOM), coupled with an unstructured grid version of the Los Alamos Sea Ice model (CICE). The new model provides users with higher resolution of nowcast (near-present conditions) and forecast guidance of water levels, currents, water temperature, ice concentration, ice thickness and ice velocity out to 120 hours in the future, and it updates four times per day. By invoking advanced model schemes and algorithms, LOOFS and LSOFS are expected to generate a more accurate model output than their former versions.
Before they were ready to become operational, the new versions of LOOFS and LSOFS were run experimentally at GLERL for several years, where they underwent extensive testing and evaluation. GLERL played a key role in developing these models and ran them as part of the Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System (GLCFS) – an experimental version of GLOFS that GLERL uses to prepare new models to become operational.
With this transition, the GLOFS models for all five Great Lakes have now been upgraded to FVCOM versions, as the Lake Erie model was upgraded in 2016, and the Lake Michigan-Huron model was upgraded in 2019. A new FVCOM-based model for the Huron-Erie Corridor, which includes Lake St. Clair and both the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers, is scheduled to be added to GLOFS in 2023. Read more about the LOOFS and LSOFS transition here.
GLERL has been improving GLOFS for over 30 years
GLOFS is based on the Great Lakes Forecasting System, originally developed by The Ohio State University (OSU) and GLERL in the late 1980s and 1990s under the direction of Dr. Keith Bedford (OSU) and Dr. David Schwab (NOAA GLERL). The original forecasting systems utilized the Princeton Ocean Model (POM) and used a set of uniformly structured bathymetric grids. The first routine nowcast, using a low-resolution grid for Lake Erie, began at OSU in 1992.
Starting in 2002, GLERL’s semi-operational GLCFS was expanded to five lakes using medium-resolution grids (5 – 10 km) and 48-hr forecasts were added. This version was successfully transferred from research to operations at NOAA NOS in 2010. The transition to operations at NOAA NOS was a joint effort between NOAA GLERL, NOS Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) and NOS Office of Coast Survey (OSC) Coast Survey Development Laboratory (CSDL), private industry, and academia (OSU).
NOAA GLERL has continued to make improvements to the experimental GLCFS; these include increasing the grid resolution (2 – 10 km), adding ice dampening and an ice model, and extending the forecasts to 120 hours during the period of 2006-2014 (generation 2). The current 3rd generation of the GLOFS is what you see run by NOS today, with a resolution of 200m to 2.5km and producing 120-hour forecasts.
The development and implementation of LSOFS and LOOFS is a joint project across several NOAA offices and external partners.
- NOAA National Ocean Service Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services
- NOAA NOS Office of Coast Survey
- NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory
- Finite Volume Community Ocean Model development group at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
- NOAA National Weather Service National Centers for Environmental Prediction Central Operations
NOAA GLERL Director Deborah Lee Accepts 2022 ASCE President’s Medal, GLERL team members recognized with NOAA awards
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently awarded NOAA GLERL Director Deborah Lee the 2022 ASCE President’s Medal for “her leadership of the Environmental and Water Resources Institute to provide for the technical, educational, and professional needs of its members, and to serve the public in the use, conservation, and protection of natural resources, and enhancement of human well-being.” Lee personally accepted the award at the ASCE Annual Business meeting in Anaheim, CA.
Deborah Lee accepts her award at the ASCE Annual Business meeting in October, 2022. Photo credit: Jason Dixson Photography
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) represents more than 150,000 members of the civil engineering profession in 177 countries. Founded in 1852, ASCE is the nation’s oldest engineering society. Lee served as the 2021 President of the ASCE’s Environmental & Water Resources Institute (EWRI), a technical source for environmental and water-related issues. During her time as EWRI President, Lee oversaw a number of initiatives related to sustainable water resources management, including career development, overseeing a number of technical and member services councils, and environmental issues.
Congratulations, Director Lee!
Additionally, several GLERL employees and recent retirees were honored with 2022 awards from NOAA and NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), and NOAA’s National Weather Service.
Mark Rowe, Bronze Award – For leadership in developing the Ocean, Coastal, and Great Lakes Acidification 2020-2029 Research Plan
Bryan Mroczka, National Weather Service Cline Award – Outreach – For developing a collaborative, multi-agency video series to transform public understanding of historical hurricane impacts for Tampa Bay communities.
Margaret Lansing (retired), Distinguished Career Award – For exemplary expertise, innovation, and leadership in communication over a sustained period in science, service, and stewardship to the Great Lakes
Timothy Hunter (retired), Distinguished Career Award – For over 34 years of outstanding technical contributions and leadership leading to improved understanding and forecasts of Great Lakes hydrology
Gregory Lang (retired), Distinguished Career Award – For 40 years of outstanding technical support in transitioning research models to operations and superb customer service to Great Lakes stakeholders
Jesse Feyen – NOAA OAR EEO/Diversity Award as part of the EEO Advisory Committee
Nicole Rice – NOAA OAR EEO/Diversity Award as part of the OAR Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee (ODIAC) team
Rita Williams – NOAA OAR EEO/Diversity Award as part of the EEO Advisory Committee
Congratulations to these GLERL staff on being recognized for their dedication to NOAA’s mission of science, service, and stewardship!
Lessons from Lake Huron: A look back at NOAA GLERL’s 2022 fieldwork for the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative
Every summer, NOAA GLERL scientists travel far and wide across the Great Lakes region to study the biological, chemical, and physical properties of these amazing lakes. A portion of this fieldwork contributes to a larger project called the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative – or CSMI – which helps us take a deeper dive into studying a different Great Lake each year. Instituted under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, CSMI is a multi-agency, international effort to coordinate science and monitoring activities in one of the five Great Lakes each year to generate data and information for environmental management agencies.
Each Great Lake gets a “CSMI year” once every five years, and 2022 was Lake Huron’s turn to shine. Sitting right at the center of the Great Lakes region, Lake Huron is shared by the state of Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario. It’s the second largest of the Great Lakes and ranks as the fourth largest lake in the world by surface area. Lake Huron provides economically and culturally important services, including a productive fishery, a source of clean drinking water, and natural beauty that supports a significant tourism industry. It’s also home to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the first ever NOAA National Marine Sanctuary to be established in the Great Lakes.
GLERL’s fieldwork for this year’s Lake Huron CSMI efforts focused on benthic and spatial surveys in Thunder Bay and Saginaw Bay. Here’s a look back at some of the highlights!
In June, July, and August of this year, GLERL conducted surveys that will allow us to update the status of invasive dreissenid mussels and other benthos of Lake Huron. As an exciting bonus, our benthic surveys in Saginaw Bay and Thunder Bay even received dive support from Thunder Bay NMS to supplement the samples collected with Ponar grabs.
In the truly collaborative fashion that CSMI is known for, GLERL scientists maximized time on these cruises by collecting samples for several federal and university collaborators in addition to conducting our mussel survey. For example, mussels and sediments went to the U.S. Geological Survey for mercury analysis, and researchers from the University of Michigan will be looking for mussel environmental DNA in water samples.
Plus, GLERL also teamed up with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), and the Canadian Coast Guard in a whole lake-benthic survey, during which GLERL assessed mussel body condition, mussel reproduction, inorganic carbon measures, and collected water for eDNA across the lake. In true CSMI spirit, DFO stepped up and supported the benthic survey when the EPA R/V Lake Guardian became unavailable.
In addition to surveying what’s happening on the lake floor, GLERL also conducted an intensive spatial survey through CSMI to study Lake Huron’s food web in the area between Thunder Bay and Saginaw Bay. With a special focus on studying the interactions between larval fish and plankton, one of the key instruments used was GLERL’s Plankton Survey System (PSS). This high-tech piece of equipment is a towed multi-sensor platform capable of measuring turbidity, chlorophyll a, photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), conductivity, temperature, and zooplankton spatial distributions.
The plots below show a nearshore to offshore view of Lake Huron’s biological data measured by the PSS, like water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll, and plankton distribution. Check out more PSS plots from this spatial survey here.
Now that the fieldwork is complete, the next step for GLERL’s CSMI work is to process our samples and analyze our data to continue building our knowledge of Lake Huron. Stay tuned in 2023, when CSMI heads east to study Lake Ontario!
For more CSMI information, data, and findings, visit greatlakescsmi.org. Plus, check out this related CSMI project in which GLERL and CIGLR developed an Experimental Biophysical Modeling Forecast System for Lakes Michigan and Huron.
New under-ice observing capabilities could lead to new discoveries in the Great Lakes
***UPDATED DECEMBER 2022***
During the dog days of summer here in the Great Lakes, scientists at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) are already thinking about the ice that will form on the lakes this winter.
This year, NOAA GLERL and a team of federal, university, and industry partners are conducting test deployments of an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) in Lake Michigan, with the ultimate goal of using it under lake ice during winter to collect ecological and water quality data. Observations of winter ecology are difficult to obtain compared to observations in the ice-free season, when most fieldwork takes place – which makes this hunt for winter data especially important.
In the world of Great Lakes research, the start of winter traditionally signals the end of fieldwork for the year. Buoys come out of the water, and research vessels – which aren’t designed for use in ice-covered waters – are docked for the season. Scientists get to work analyzing new data from the previous field season and tuning up field equipment for a fresh start in the spring. This break leads to a several-month gap in most of GLERL’s field data, but this project aims to fill that gap using the high-tech SAAB Sabertooth AUV.
One underwater robot, many important jobs
One of the AUV’s main tasks will be to collect water quality data, benthic (lake bottom) data, and fish and zooplankton observations. These observations will be collected using an acoustic imaging system, and will contribute to our understanding of important wintertime ecological processes in the Great Lakes. While summer is widely considered to be the peak time of year for biological productivity, biological processes still occur during the winter and are understudied in the Great Lakes. NOAA GLERL’s winter observations may even lead to unexpected discoveries, as new GLERL data suggest that some Great Lakes biological processes may actually accelerate during the winter months. Ice cover is seen as a key variable in the regulation of biological processes in the lakes during winter. Enhancing our understanding of these processes is particularly important as climate change may have implications for the extent, thickness, and duration of seasonal ice cover.
The AUV also will characterize winter distributions of prey fish using a multi-frequency echosounder. Spawning in prey fish species like bloater also take place during winter, in turn affecting predator stocks (like lake trout) that help underpin a 7 billion-dollar annual Great Lakes fishery. Additionally, the AUV will contribute valuable data on the distribution of invasive mussels to NOAA GLERL’s 25-year ecological monitoring program. The AUV will map the locations of invasive mussel reefs on the lake floor using sonar technology and high-resolution imagery.
World-class technology in the Great Lakes
The SAAB Sabertooth AUV is no average piece of fieldwork equipment; it’s among the most advanced and complex underwater vehicles in the world. Navigation is one of the biggest challenges AUVs face, since GPS signals are unavailable underwater. This AUV contains an Inertial Navigation System, which keeps track of the vehicle’s movements with extreme precision. Based on its known deployment location, the vehicle uses this navigation system to calculate its exact location throughout its mission with minimal error. When within range, acoustic beacons anchored nearby in the lake are also used to confirm the AUV’s location.
In addition to the AUV itself, this effort also includes the development of a fully integrated docking station that allows the vehicle to recharge its battery and transfer the data it’s collected during its winter excursion. The vehicle’s ability to safely dock, charge its battery, and transmit data to scientists is a critical component in its ability to function under ice without human help.
DECEMBER 2022 UPDATE
The most recent phase of this project, conducted in December 2022 at the beginning of meteorological winter, tested the AUV’s docking station and charging capabilities for the first time. The highly successful field trials achieved several goals:
- The AUV autonomously navigated through the Muskegon Channel and out into Lake Michigan, where it successfully collected ecological data and mapped the lake floor.
- Back in the channel, the AUV autonomously docked itself, using Sonardyne acoustic beacons to confirm its location.
- Once docked, the AUV transferred the data it had collected and successfully recharged its battery from a Teledyne Energy Systems Subsea Supercharger® hydrogen fuel cell. As a truly groundbreaking outing, this field trial was the first time the Saab AUV has ever been charged underwater using a fuel cell power source.
So, where will all this new data go? The AUV’s data will ultimately be added to GLERL’s Realtime Coastal Observation Network (ReCON).
Smooth sailing beneath the surface
The large size of the AUV provides ample space, flotation, and electrical resources for simultaneously carrying a large suite of sensors that make multitasking a breeze for this high-tech vehicle. The various sensors work together to ensure the vehicle stays upright, avoids collisions with boats, and doesn’t accidentally hit the bottom of the lake. Plus, robust propellers allow the AUV to make precise turns and hover at a fixed depth, making it much easier to maneuver than its torpedo-shaped cousins.
When it’s not in the Great Lakes helping NOAA with environmental research, this vehicle can usually be found performing tunnel inspections at hydroelectric power facilities around the world – including locations like California, South Korea, and Turkey. The AUV’s ability to navigate through these tunnels allows them to be inspected without being drained, saving considerable time and money. Just as it navigates through these enclosed tunnels, this impressive underwater robot could soon be navigating its way under Great Lakes ice cover.
NOAA GLERL’s partners on this project include Hibbard Inshore, Saab Dynamics AB, Teledyne Energy Systems, the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
NOAA Disclaimer: This publication does not constitute an endorsement of any commercial product or intend to be an opinion beyond scientific or other results obtained by NOAA.
Forecasting maximum Great Lakes ice cover in 2022
The NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) has posted its annual experimental Great Lakes maximum ice cover projection for the winter of 2021-2022. The most recent experimental forecast, updated on January 13th, predicts a maximum Great Lakes ice cover of 48.7% – slightly lower than the average annual maximum ice cover (AMIC) of 54.5% since 1973.
Every year at the start of winter, GLERL’s ice climatologist Dr. Jia Wang uses a statistical regression model based on global teleconnections (air circulation patterns) to create GLERL’s seasonal ice forecast.
Each lake gets its own prediction.
In addition to forecasting maximum ice cover for the entire Great Lakes basin, GLERL’s experimental ice forecast also predicts ice cover lake-by-lake. The predicted maximum seasonal ice cover for each lake is as follows:
- Lake Superior = 52.3% (long-term average AMIC is 62.3%)
- Lake Michigan = 37.9% (long-term average AMIC is 41.4%)
- Lake Huron = 51.1% (long-term average AMIC is 65.0%)
- Lake Erie = 70.7% (long-term average AMIC is 81.9%)
- Lake Ontario = 12.9% (long-term average AMIC is 31.4%)
Although ice cover is only around 15% right now, there’s still plenty of winter left for further freezing. Historically, much of the major freezing of the Great Lakes happens in February.
What do global air patterns have to do with Great Lakes ice?
Our research has shown that the interannual variability of Great Lakes ice cover is heavily influenced by four large-scale climate patterns referred to as teleconnections: the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). These projected teleconnection pattern indices are produced by other agencies such as NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. These teleconnection patterns impact Great Lakes regional climate and ice cover by influencing the location of the westerly jet stream over North America. The position of the jet stream largely dictates the origin of the air masses (e.g. North Pacific or the Arctic) that will reach the Great Lakes region as weather systems move across the continent. The temperature and moisture content of these air masses play a key role in determining ice cover.
2022 ice forecast compared to previous years
According to Wang, if the cycles of annual variability are removed, a decadal trend becomes visible, showing that overall ice cover has gone down by five percent max ice cover per decade based on 1973-2020 data. The 2022 maximum ice cover prediction of 48.7% is about 5.8% lower than the long-term average of 54.5%.
On average, the Great Lakes annual maximum ice cover is decreasing by about a half percent per year, or 5% per decade. Below is a table of the percentage decrease for each lake. With the exception of Lake Huron, these trends are all considered statistically significant, meaning we are 95% certain that the trend is not due to random chance.
NOAA GLERL continues to refine this experimental ice forecast model and conduct further research to continually improve it. Learn more about our Great Lakes ice research, current conditions, forecasting and more on our Ice Cover homepage.
NOAA Wave Glider Camaro Gathers Key Data During 25-Day Cruise in Lake Superior
The NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and Michigan Technological University (MTU) Great Lakes Research Center recently teamed up on the deployment of a wave glider in Lake Superior. The chemical and biological data collected will help researchers understand more about the Lake Superior foodweb and also be used to validate satellite information.
Information gathered by autonomous vehicles, such as the wave glider, helps fine-tune satellite algorithms (instructions that tell a satellite how to interpret what it’s seeing). Satellites are a great tool for observing the lakes, as they provide a broader view than that from the ground. Researchers create Great Lakes-specific algorithms because those used in the ocean often do not work well in the lakes. The data collected by the wave glider will help validate the algorithms and allow researchers to understand more about the lakes, such as primary productivity (See MTU’s blog post for more.)
A team of researchers from MTU deployed the wave glider on August 30, 2021 and it spent 25 days surveying the lake and collecting data. The plan is to make the data public through the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) so that information can be used in many ways including model development.
“It is a privilege for the Great Lakes Research Center to collaborate with NOAA GLERL on the wave glider experiment in Lake Superior, a first of its kind,” said Andrew Barnard, director of Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center. “This project continues to build a strong partnership between our organizations to push the boundaries of autonomy and sensing technologies. These new technologies in the Great Lakes support a better understanding of the physical processes in the lakes and will directly result in improved management insight for policy makers.”
Steve Ruberg of NOAA GLERL is thrilled with the MTU partnership as it expands our ability to collect data throughout the lakes. “Uncrewed vehicles give us the persistent large spatial observational capability to get in situ observations that will allow us to validate Great Lakes remote sensing.”
This research project is a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI). Federal and state agencies, tribal groups, non-governmental organizations and academic researchers from the United States and Canada team up yearly to assess conditions in one of the five Great Lakes. The survey focuses on a series of research areas that are tailored to the unique challenges and data needs associated with each lake.
From safe drinking water to sustainable fisheries, NOAA GLERL’s Experimental Lake Erie Hypoxia Forecast is even more useful than anticipated
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.
New wave buoy will provide data to support wave and flood forecasting on Lake Champlain
The NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and partners recently deployed a buoy in Lake Champlain that will measure the lake’s wave heights to assess the accuracy of a new experimental model for the lake. This is part of a five-year NOAA GLERL project that will improve public safety on Lake Champlain by contributing to flood preparedness and response around the shores of the lake. 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.
Left: Newly deployed NOAA buoy in Lake Champlain. Credit: University of Vermont FEMC staff. Top right: NOAA GLERL 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. Bottom right: Sunset on Lake Champlain. Credit: Dan Titze, CIGLR.
The project is a major collaborative effort by bi-national, federal, and university partners of NOAA GLERL. Partners at the University of Vermont’s Forest Ecosystem Monitoring Cooperative (FEMC) deployed the seasonal buoy in May, and the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) at the University of San Diego Scripps Institute of Oceanography receives the data, manages its quality control, and posts it to NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center (NDBC) website. Researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) are currently leading the development of a wave model for Lake Champlain, which is providing experimental forecasts on the GLERL website.
The buoy is located in the middle of the lake near Schuyler Reef, where it will remain until late fall, and is collecting wave height observations that will be used to validate NOAA’s WAVEWATCH III model for Lake Champlain. The experimental model’s output data will be compared to the buoy’s observed data, which will help scientists assess how well the model performs.
Location of the new NOAA Lake Champlain wave buoy, depicted by a yellow diamond. Map credit: NOAA National Data Buoy Center.
The buoy’s environmental data can be found on the CDIP website, and on the buoy’s page on the NOAA NDBC website. The buoy and the experimental wave model will be a helpful new tool for the region’s National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in Burlington, Vermont, which provides lake forecasts including wave data to mariners in the region.
In addition to regional weather forecasters and local mariners, this buoy’s data will also be useful to emergency managers in the counties and cities around Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, as well as the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Prediction which will transition the WAVEWATCH III model to operations.
This project is funded by the International Joint Commission’s Lake Champlain-Richelieu River (LCRR) Study Board. 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 extensive waters and waterways along the Canada–United States border. The IJC’s LCRR Study Board was created in 2016 to undertake a study of the causes, impacts, risks, and potential solutions to flooding in the LCRR basin.