NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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Ice cover on the Great Lakes

The USCGC Mackinaw arrives in Duluth via Lake Superior. March 24, 2014

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw is an icebreaking vessel on the Great Lakes that assists in keeping channels and harbors open to navigation. Here, the USCGC Mackinaw arrives in Duluth via Lake Superior on March 24, 2014. Credit: NOAA
Ice formation on the Great Lakes is a clear sign of winter!

Looking back in time, the lakes were formed over several thousands of years as mile-thick layers of glacial ice advanced and retreated, scouring and sculpting the basin. The shape and drainage patterns of the basin were constantly changing from the ebb and flow of glacial meltwater and the rebound of the underlying land as the massive ice sheets retreated.

The amount and duration of ice cover varies widely from year to year. As part of our research, GLERL scientists are observing longterm changes in ice cover as a result of global warming. Studying, monitoring, and predicting ice coverage on the Great Lakes plays an important role in determining climate patterns, lake water levels, water movement patterns, water temperature, and spring algal blooms.

Doing research to improve forecasts is important for a variety of reasons.

Ice provides us a connection to the past and also serves as a measure of the harshness of current day winter weather. Understanding the major effect of ice on the Great Lakes is very important because ice cover impacts a range of benefits provided by the lakes—from hydropower generation to commercial shipping to the fishing industry. The ability to forecast and predict ice cover is also really important for recreational safety and rescue efforts, as well as for navigation, weather forecasting, adapting to lake level changes, and all sorts of ecosystem research. One great example of the importance of forecasting is illustrated by an incident that occurred in Lake Erie on a warm sunny day in February 2009 when a large ice floe broke away from the shoreline. The floating ice block stranded 134 anglers about 1,000 yards offshore and also resulted in the death of one man who fell into the water. While the ice on the western sections of the lake was nearly 2 feet thick, rising temperatures caused the ice to break up, and southerly wind gusts of 35 mph pushed the ice off shore. Having the ability to forecast how much ice cover there will be, where it may move, and what other factors like temperature, waves, or wind might play a role in what the ice is going to do, is incredibly important to a lot of users.

— GLERL’s 2017 (Dec. 2016 – March 2017) Seasonal Ice Cover Projection for the Great Lakes —

GLERL’s ice climatologist, Jia Wang, along with partners from the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research, use two different methods to predict seasonal ice cover for the Great Lakes. One, a statistical regression model, uses mathematical relationships developed from historical observations to predict seasonal ice cover maximum based on the status of several global air masses that influence basin weather. This method forecasts that the maximum ice cover extent over the entire Great Lakes basin, will be 64%. The other forecast method, a 3-dimensional mechanistic model, is based on the laws of physics that govern atmospheric and hydrodynamic (how water moves) processes to predict ice growth in response to forecast weather conditions. This method predicts a maximum ice cover of 44% for the basin this year.

As you can see, the two methods have produced different answers. However, if you look at the last chart here, you’ll see that three of the lakes show good agreement between these two model types–Lakes Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. Continued research, along with the historical data we’ve been monitoring and documenting for over 40 years, will help GLERL scientists improve ice forecasts and, ultimately, improve our ability to adapt and remain resilient through change.


More information!

Below, is the most recent Great Lakes Surface Environmental Analysis (GLSEA) analysis of the Great Lakes Total Ice Cover. GLSEA is a digital map of the Great Lakes surface water temperature (see color bar on left) and ice cover (see grayscale bar on right), which is produced daily at GLERL by Great Lakes CoastWatch. It combines lake surface temperatures that are developed from satellite images and ice cover information provided by the National Ice Center (NIC). This image is the analysis of January 10, 2017 (13%). For the most current analysis, visit https://coastwatch.glerl.noaa.gov/glsea/cur/glsea_cur.png.

GLSEA total ice cover analysis for January 10, 2017

For technical information on GLERL’s ice forecasting program, check out our website here. 

You can also find much of the information in this post, and more, on this downloadable .pdf of the GLERL fact sheet on Great Lakes ice cover.

Want to see a really cool graphic showing the extent of the maximum ice cover on the Great Lakes for each year since 1973? You’ll find that here.


Great Lakes ice cover facts since 1973

94.7% ice coverage in 1979 is the maximum on record.

9.5% ice coverage in 2002 is the lowest on record.

11.5% ice coverage in 1998, a strong El Niño year.

The extreme ice cover in 2014 (92.5%) and 2015 (88.8%) were the first consecutive high ice cover years since the late 1970’s.

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On March 6, 2014, Great Lakes ice cover was 92.5%, putting winter 2014 into 2nd place in the record books for maximum ice cover. Satellite photo credit: NOAA Great Lakes CoastWatch and NASA.
Hydrilla verticillata. Common Name: Hydrilla.


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Collaborative team identifies 16 high-risk Great Lakes invaders

NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) recently published a very detailed NOAA Technical Memorandum (GLERL-169), which identifies the potential for introduction (getting in), establishment (living and reproducing), and impact (changing the ecosystem in one way or another) of 67 species that were previously identified through peer-reviewed research as being highly likely to invade the Great Lakes basin. The study also identifies a subset of 16 species (5 plants, 6 fishes, 4 invertebrates), which should be considered the highest overall risk to the Great Lakes region (see photo gallery below).

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The tech memo—titled “A Risk Assessment of Potential Great Lakes Aquatic Invaders“— is the result of a large collaborative effort between partners all throughout the Great Lakes region. The paper was authored by Abigail Fusaro (Wayne State University), Rochelle Sturtevant (NOAA’s Great Lakes Sea Grant Network liaison with GLERL), Ed Rutherford (NOAA GLERL) and others—including 5 student co-authors and more than 30 students who contributed to the literature review, assessment of individual species, and editing of the final report.

A little history on this project

NOAA GLERL—in cooperation with United States Geological Survey (USGS)—has been tracking nonindigenous aquatic species (species that enter a body of water that is outside of the historical range, in other words, they’ve never lived there before) in the Great Lakes system and serving that information through the GLANSIS database  since 2003. Information in the GLANSIS database includes an overview of the species life history, ecology, and invasion history as well as maps of current distribution, comprehensive impact assessments and overviews of management options—all very useful and important information for tracking invaders. An enhancement to the database in 2011* gave researchers the ability to add information on species that pose a risk of invasion, but are not yet established in the Great Lakes. The addition of these assessments, which were previously published in peer-reviewed scientific literature, helps to identify the species that pose the highest overall risk (introduction + establishment + impact). This information is key in that it allows scientists and environmental managers to better monitor for invasions and make decisions about management options in a rapid response situation.

How this is unique

The risk assessment tools developed for GLANSIS apply a consistent approach across all taxonomic groups and vectors, and allow researchers to compare the potential impact of high-risk species with the realized impact of nonindigenous species that are already established.  The tech memo serves as documentation of these tools and approaches as well as examines cross-taxa patterns in risk.  An analysis of the risk assessment method itself and its results will appear in an upcoming issue of Management of Biological Invasions.


For more information on GLANSIS, please contact Rochelle Sturtevant, rochelle.sturtevant@noaa.gov, 734-741-2287.

*This was made possible with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.


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Retrieval of new data from instruments in Manistique River will inform research and decision making

During recent fieldwork, Dr. Philip Chu, scientist at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and Professor Chin Wu, from the University of Wisconsin Madison, retrieved six water level sensors and one Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) from the Manistique River—a 71.2 mile long river in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that drains into Lake Michigan.

An ADCP measures water currents with sound by using the Doppler effect— sound wave has a higher frequency, or pitch, when it moves toward you than it does when it moves away. Think of the Doppler effect in action the next time you hear a speeding train pass you by. As the train moves toward you, the pitch of its whistle will be higher. As it moves away, it will be lower. The same effect happens as sound moves through water. The ADCP emits pulses of sounds that bounce off of particles moving through the water. Particles that are moving toward the sensor will produce a higher frequency than those moving away from the sensor. This effect allows the profiler to record data about sediment transport in the river.

After quality control and assurance procedures back in the lab, currents and water level data collected during this deployment, scientists will use the information to research the impacts of meteotsunamis, seiches, and flooding events on sediment transport through the river. The outcomes of this research will then will be used by organizations, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for dredging operations on the river with the ultimate goal of improving water quality. (See the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement for more on why the Manistique River is considered an “Area of Concern.”)

In addition, researchers will use this valuable field data while validating the NOAA next generation Lake Michigan-Huron Operational Forecasting System, one of the forecast systems within the Great Lakes Operational Forecasting System, or GLOFS. GLOFS is a prediction system that provides timely information to lake carriers, mariners, port and beach managers, emergency response teams, and recreational boaters, surfers, and anglers through both nowcast and forecast guidance.


Nowcast vs. Forecast: What’s the difference?

A nowcast is a description of the present lake conditions based on model simulations using observed meteorology. Nowcasts are generated every 6 hours and you can step backward in hourly increments to view conditions over the previous 48 hours, or view animations over this time period.

A forecast is a prediction of what will happen in the future. Our models use current lake conditions and predicted weather patterns to forecast the lake conditions for up to 5 days in the future. These forecasts are run twice daily, and you can step through these predictions in hourly increments, or view animations over this time period.


Professor Wu, along with Dr. Eric Anderson from GLERL, deployed these sensors earlier this summer. As with the majority of GLERL’s projects, this is a collaborative effort. Through the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER), this work is supported by NOAA National Marine and Fishery Service and funded by EPA Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The University of Wisconsin is one of ten CILER Consortium partners.


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Working to understand the drivers of bloom toxicity in Lake Okeechobee

IMG_0207Last week, GLERL scientist Tim Davis spent time down in Florida sampling and conducting field experiments in Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River, two major freshwater ecosystems in Florida that are currently under a state of emergency due to the presence of harmful algal blooms.

IMG_0197The sampling and research we’re doing in Lake Okeechobeeo helps us get a better understanding of the environmental drivers behind changes in bloom toxicity—a main focus of the research we’re doing within our HAB research program. The work we’re doing throughout western Lake Erie, has led the creation of an experimental Lake Erie HAB Tracker and Lake Erie Experimental HAB forecast, which are used by water treatment managers and others to make important decisions about water quality in the region. 

This collaboration with CILER (Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research), Stony Brook University and USGS, will prove beneficial to the continued research and better understanding of ecosystem health effects related to human-influenced water quality degradation, not only in the Great Lakes, but throughout all large freshwater systems. By comparing the genetic characteristics of the blooms in Florida to those that occur in Lake Erie, we hope to not only better understand toxicity, but also whether or not we can apply the same techniques of forecasting and monitoring in Lake Erie to other large bodies of freshwater around the world.

GLERL will continue to receive bloom samples for genetic testing of the Lake Okeechobee HAB for the rest of the season.  

Note: For specific information about the bloom in Florida, please visit 
the responding agencies' website: 

For sampling information please visit Florida Department of
Environmental Protection: 
https://depnewsroom.wordpress.com/algal-bloom-monitoring-an
d-response/ 

For health information please visit Florida Department of
Health:
http://www.floridahealth.gov/environmental-health/aquatic-toxins/index.html

For information on water management in the region please
visit South Florida Water Management District:
http://www.sfwmd.gov/portal/page/portal/sfwmdmain/home%20pa
ge 

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