NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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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


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Vertical Water Temperature in Southern Lake Michigan

Since 1990, GLERL scientists have been measuring temperature in the middle of southern Lake Michigan (at approximately 42.68, -87.07). They’ve been using a vertical chain of instruments that measure temperature from top to bottom. This is one of the longest vertical temperature records in existence anywhere in the Great Lakes, and it reveals some interesting patterns about lake temperature and the seasons. We’ve created a static infographic as well as an interactive chart that allows you to zoom in on the data and get individual measurement values.

Below, check out our infographic explaining seasonal temperature profiles in Lake Michigan.

Click here to interactively explore Lake Michigan temperature data.

Click to see an infographic explaining Lake Michigan temperature data.

Lake Michigan temperature data infographic.


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Scientists Work Around the Clock During Seasonal Lake Michigan Cruise

Last month, scientists from GLERL, the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER), and other university partners took the research vessel Laurentian for a multi-day cruise on Lake Michigan as part of seasonal sampling to assess the spatial organization of the lower food web—spatial organization simply means the vertical and horizontal location where organisms hang out at different times of day, and the lower food web refers to small organisms at the bottom of the food chain.

The research goes on around the clock. Scientists work in shifts, taking turns sleeping and sampling. The Laurentian spends a full 24 hours at each monitoring station, sampling vertical slices of the water column. Sampling at these same stations has been going on since 2010, providing a long-term dataset that is essential for studying the impact of things like climate change and the establishment of invasive species.

Sampling focuses on planktonic (floating) organisms such as bacteria, phytoplankton (tiny plants), zooplankton (tiny animals), and larval fishes which feed on zooplankton. Many of the zooplankton migrate down into deep, dark, cold layers of the water column during the day to escape predators such as fish and other zooplankton. They return unseen to warm surface waters at night to feed on abundant phytoplankton. Knowing where everything is and who eats whom is important for understanding the system.

Our researchers use different sampling tools to study life at different scales. For example, our MOCNESS (Multiple Opening Closing Net Environmental Sampling System) is pretty good at catching larger organisms like larval fish, Mysis (opossum shrimp), and the like. The MOCNESS has a strobe flash system that stuns the organisms, making it easier to bring them into its multiple nets.

The PSS (Plankton Survey System) is a submersible V-Fin (vehicle for instrumentation) that is dragged behind the boat and measures zooplankton, chlorophyll (a measure of phytoplankton), dissolved oxygen, temperature, and light levels. Measurements are made at a very high spatial resolution from the top to the bottom of the water. At the same time fishery acoustics show where the fish are. Together, these two techniques allow us to see where much of the food web is located.

Water samples are taken at various depths and analyzed right on the boat. This is a good way to study microbes such as bacteria and very small phytoplankton. The lower food web has been pretty heavily altered by the grazing of quagga and zebra mussels. Specifically, the microbial food web (consisting of microbes such as bacteria and very small phytoplankton) makes up a larger component of the food web than before mussel invasion, and scientists are working to find out exactly how this has happened.

Check out the photos below for a glimpse of life in the field!

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Central Michigan University students Anthony and Allie are all smiles as they prepare to head out!

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Getting the MOCNESS ready.

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Chief scientist Hank Vanderploeg looks at some data.

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Filtering a water sample—filtering out the big stuff makes it easier to see microbes.

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Paul prepares the fluoroprobe.

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Taking a water sample in the presence of a beautiful sunset!