NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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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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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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Women’s History Month Special: Retiring GLERL Physical Scientist Anne Clites gives us her parting wisdom

A woman with brown hair and a black vest on smiles for the camera.

Anne Clites, GLERL physical scientist, is retiring at the end of March after 35 years with the lab.

At the end of March, Anne Clites, GLERL physical scientist, will retire after 35 years with the lab. Her work can be somewhat behind-the-scenes (things like compiling, archiving and distributing data), but it’s just as essential as what our principal investigators do. She brings continuity, organization, and accountability. She’s contributed enormously to the science we do here, and we thought we’d ask her to share a bit of her wisdom and experience before she goes.

How would you describe your job? How long have you been doing it?

“I started working at GLERL in 1982. As a physical scientist, I’ve worked with a number of project scientists over the years, helping gather data, improve computer models, publish results, and make our products available and understandable to others. Most of the work has involved improving our understanding of the water budget, seasonal prediction of water levels and ice cover.”

Has your job changed over time?

“Technology has changed! When I started working at GLERL, I had to walk to another building to a card punch machine to run my programs. It was several years before we all had PCs on our desks. I was in on the effort to develop our first website and that has certainly changed the way we communicate and distribute data.”

What is the most interesting thing you’ve accomplished in your job? What has been your favorite part?

“I’m proud of my contributions to a lot of journal articles and data products over the years. I know that I’ve helped improve our website to make our data more discoverable. I’ve often felt like a translator between scientists and the public, and tried hard to build a bridge there when it was needed. I really love NOAA’s mission: ‘to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts’ and to share that knowledge with others. It’s important work and I’m proud to have a part in it.”

What advice would you give to young people who are beginning a career in science?

“Everyone should learn to write well! It is so important to be able to communicate what we learn – both with other scientists, and with the public. A good understanding of using data to tell a story won’t hurt, either.”

It’s Women’s History Month, and we’d love to hear some of your thoughts about being a woman in STEM. How do you think you’ve experienced your career differently than men you’ve worked with?

“I think family responsibilities are shared more now than they were 30 years ago, but I think women still do more of the mental juggling, although every family is different. One thing I truly valued about my job is that I had the opportunity to work part time while my kids were little. I was never treated as if my contributions were less important just because I worked part-time. That meant a lot to me. It also allowed me to be a Girl Scout leader, an active parent-teacher organization member and sports parent.”

What do you think the research/academic community can do to attract and retain women?

“Keep offering flexible work schedules and part-time work for women who want to juggle job and family.”

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

“Cook, read, get outside, garden, sing, peace and justice work, board games, do anything with my kids and grandkids.”

What do you wish people knew about scientists or research?

“Too many people think of scientific research as something that will never touch their lives, and they are so wrong about that! We need facts to solve these problems! The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s available fresh surface water. That’s way too important to ignore!”


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Scientists are people with questions: a conversation with GLERL limnologist Craig Stow

A man in a baseball cap stands in the GLERL lobby in front of some 3-d bathymetry maps of the Great Lakes

Craig Stow, a GLERL limnologist, says scientists are “people with questions.”

Craig Stow is a Limnologist (that means somebody who studies freshwater systems) at NOAA GLERL. He models nutrients cycling through (Great) lakes. His research is super applicable; notably, he’s part of the team trying to deal with nutrient loads in Lake Erie – he wrestles with the question of how much phosphorous is coming into the lake, and how it gets there.

Read on to see how Craig deals with mental blocks, why science isn’t like the movies, and what he thinks people get wrong about researchers.

How would you describe your job?

“I try to learn about things so that I can usefully apply any enhanced insight I might gain. Currently I’m trying to better understand the separate influences of tributary flow and tributary nutrient concentration on nutrient loads to Lake Erie. We have set new phosphorus load targets and those can be achieved by managing tributary flow, tributary nutrient concentration, or both, but the effects in the lake will differ in ways that are not obvious.”

What is the most interesting thing you’ve accomplished?

“The most interesting things are those that are counter to what you expect a priori. Though it can take a while to come to grips with the realization that you didn’t know what you were talking about at the outset. When I was a master’s student my adviser told me it was good to be humbled; I didn’t expect it to happen so frequently. Astounding revelations are more prevalent in movies than real life — at least in my office. Most of what I accomplish involves incremental insights that nudge the field along.”

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

“Read a lot, talk to colleagues, recognize unresolved tensions, think really hard, then do something else. Good insights often occur when your mind relaxes following a period of intense concentration.”

How would you advise high school students interested in science as a career path, or someone interested in your particular field?

“Learn to write well. Publishing requires recognizing a good story and telling it effectively. If you can’t express your thoughts clearly and succinctly you will struggle in this field.”

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

“I like to play and listen to music, work outdoors, be at home with the family, and grill. And think about fishing. I used to actually go fishing, now I just think about it. I’m usually more successful and don’t jab the hook in my fingers as often.”

What do you wish people knew about scientists or research?

“Science is the collective process of searching for the truth. It occurs by assembling and synthesizing information to generate ideas, and sharing those ideas so that others can corroborate, contradict, or modify them. The peer-reviewed literature is the primary venue for that process; that’s why publication is important. Scientists are the individuals who participate in this process. Most are intrinsically curious, many are really smart, some live an illusion of objectivity, and there are a few charlatans. The successful ones are more tenacious than anything else. There’s a tendency to view scientists as people with answers, mostly they’re people with questions.”


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#WinterisComing: Along with mountain areas, parts of the Great Lakes are the snowiest places in the U.S.

As the winter months begin, they bring the phenomenon that every Great Lakes resident knows (and either loves or hates): lake effect snow.

Lake effect snow happens while the Great Lakes are still unfrozen and relatively warm. Cold air (usually from Canada) sweeps over them, picking up moisture and warmth on the way. It then drops the moisture as snow downwind.

This might sound a little confusing — how could “warm” lake water result in snow? Well, the warmth from the lakes is only enough to get the moisture from the surface of the lake into the atmosphere. Once the moisture is up in that mass of cold air, it turns into snow and then falls — usually about the time it’s passing over whatever freeway you use for your afternoon commute.

Check out this map of the United States: you’ll notice that things generally get snowier the farther north you go, but that the really dramatic snowfall (average of more than 8 feet annually) occurs in two places: high mountain elevations and land adjacent to the Great Lakes. Many areas in the Great Lakes basin average at least 4 feet annually. You can thank lake effect snow for this.

Map showing average annual snowfall in the contiguous United States.

Map showing average annual snowfall in the contiguous United States.

Notice that the western shore of Lake Michigan and Southeast Michigan/Northwest Ohio are somewhat spared — wind patterns have a lot to do with this. It is not enough to just be next to a Great Lake — the wind has to be blowing your way.

The GIF below shows lake effect snow in action. The black arrows represent wind speed (length) and direction, and the color scale shows snow accumulation. This is model output re-creating a lake effect snow event from December of 2016.

Model output for a lake effect snow event back in December of 2016. Arrows show wind speed and direction and color scale shows snow accumulation.

Researchers at the NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, along with partners from the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), are working on a model that can indirectly improve predictions of lake effect snow through the expected latent heat flux from the lakes. “Latent heat flux” is fancy terminology for that warmth, and associated water, moving from the lakes to the air that we talked about earlier. So, if the latent heat flux is predicted to be high (lots of moisture and warmth being transferred from the lake to the atmosphere), there’s a greater chance of a lake effect snow event.

You can see that model output here, although for now it’s a “nowcast” — a re-creation of the last 5 days. However, forecast data (and data for more lakes) is on the way!

Aerial photo survey improves NOAA GLERL’s Lake Erie ice model

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Understanding the duration, extent, and movement of Great Lakes ice is important for the Great Lakes maritime industry, public safety, and the recreational economy. Lake Erie is ice-prone, with maximum cover surpassing 80% many winters.

Multiple times a day throughout winter, GLERL’s 3D ice model predicts ice thickness and concentration on the surface of Lake Erie. The output is available to the public, but the model is under development, meaning that modelers still have research to do to get it to better reflect reality.

As our scientists make adjustments to the model, they need to compare its output with actual conditions so they know that it’s getting more accurate. So, on January 13th of this year, they sent a plane with a photographer to fly the edge of the lake and take photos of the ice.

The map below shows the ice model output for that day, along with the plane’s flight path and the location of the 172 aerial photos that were captured.

NOAA GLERL Lake Erie ice model output with all aerial photo survey locations -- January 13, 2017. Credit NOAA GLERL/Kaye LaFond.

NOAA GLERL Lake Erie ice model output with all aerial photo survey locations — January 13, 2017. Map Credit NOAA GLERL/Kaye LaFond.

These photos provide a detailed look at the sometimes complex ice formations on the lake, and let our scientists know if there are places where the model is falling short.

Often, the model output can also be compared to images and surface temperature measurements taken from satellites. That information goes into the GLSEA product on our website (this is separate from the ice model). GLSEA is useful to check the ice model with. However, it’s important to get this extra information.

“These photographs not only enable us to visualize the ice field when satellite data is not available, but also allow us to recognize the spatial scale or limit below which the model has difficulty in simulating the ice structures.” says Eric Anderson, an oceanographer at GLERL and one of the modelers.

 “This is particularly evident near the Canadian coastline just east of the Detroit River mouth, where shoreline ice and detached ice floes just beyond the shoreline are not captured by the model. These floes are not only often at a smaller spatial scale than the model grid, but also the fine scale mechanical processes that affect ice concentration and thickness in this region are not accurately represented by the model physics.”

Click through the images below to see how select photos compared to the model output. To see all 172 photos, check out our album on Flickr. The photos were taken by Zachary Haslick of Aerial Associates.

 

This gallery contains 10 photos