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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Leading the way toward solutions to flooding issues in Lake Champlain and Richelieu River System

A project update from GLERL Deputy Director, Jesse Feyen

GLERL has a long track record for modeling and predicting circulation and levels for our Great Lakes waters. Now we are working to apply this expertise in Lake Champlain, a large lake system that is shared with Canada. The lake lies along the New York/Vermont border and flows north into Quebec via the Richelieu River. In 2011, this lake-river system experienced significant precipitation and wind events that raised the levels of Lake Champlain to record levels and caused extensive flooding and damage around the lake and along the Richelieu River.

As a cross-border boundary water, management of the Lake Champlain/Richelieu River system is subject to the International Boundary Waters Treaty. In responding to a reference from the governments of the United States and Canada, the binational International Joint Commission (IJC) is conducting a study exploring the causes, impacts, risks, and solutions to flooding in the basin like during 2011.

The IJC has tapped GLERL to play a lead role in the study given our expertise in modeling the hydrology and hydrodynamics of the Great Lakes and experience working with Canadian partners. As a key expert in the IJC’s Upper Great Lakes Study and the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Study, GLERL Director Deborah Lee was invited to serve as a U.S. member of the project’s Study Board, which provides the overall guidance and direction for the project. Deborah nominated Deputy Director Jesse Feyen to head up the U.S. portion of the study’s Hydraulics, Hydrology, and Mapping Technical Working Group, or HHM TWG.

A GLERL-led team of research partners is building solutions to these flooding issues in Lake Champlain and Richelieu River System. In addition to Lee and Feyen, team members include Integrated Physical and Ecological Modeling and Forecasting (IPEMF) Philip Chu, Drew Gronewold, and Eric Anderson; Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) Dima Beletsky, Haoguo Hu, and Andy Xiao, with support from Lacey Mason; and the Northeast River Forecast Center’s Bill Saunders.

The two priorities of the study are to determine what flood mitigation measures can be implemented in the basin, and to create new flood forecast tools for the system. Current flood models operated by the National Weather Service (NWS) cannot account for the effects of winds and waves on Lake Champlain water levels, which can increase water level by several feet, significantly impacting flooding.

The modeling approach used in this study mirrors GLERL’s work in the Great Lakes. In Lake Champlain, a 3D FVCOM is being built to model water levels, temperature, and circulation; a WAVEWATCH III wave model will be coupled to FVCOM model to predict wave conditions; a WRF-Hydro (Weather Research and Forecasting) distributed hydrologic model will predict streamflow and runoff into the basin. This approach relies on models that are in use at NOAA and can readily be transferred to operations by the NWS and National Ocean Service, both of which have been participating in planning throughout the project.

While flooding issues in the Lake Champlain and Richelieu River system pose steep challenges on both sides of the border, GLERL brings the leadership, technical expertise as well as a “One NOAA” approach that are all essential for leveraging progress.


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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!


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Embracing Collaboration and Partnerships: A Way of Life at GLERL

The science community in the Great Lakes region holds a long history of partnership building, extending across jurisdictional, institutional, and disciplinary lines. These partnerships have been evolving in the region for decades as a means to leverage the intellectual capital and financial resources needed to address the environmental challenges (sediment and nutrient loading, toxic pollution, invasive species) threatening the integrity of the Great Lakes.  Agreements and programs established in the region—such as the Great Lakes Water Quality (1972), Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (2005), and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (2010)—are celebrated for their unique partnerships of federal, state/provincial, and tribal and local governments.

GLERL has embraced the Great Lakes tradition of collaboration and partnership building in the development and implementation of its scientific research program since the laboratory’s inception in the mid-1970s.  As a primary organizational goal, GLERL envisions partnerships as a way to strengthen capacity in the conduct of its interdisciplinary research. One way that we accomplish this is by providing a hub for collaboration at GLERL’s Ann Arbor facility—such as space for meetings and workshops to help in the coordination of scientific research and policy—as well as at GLERL’s Lake Michigan Field Station in Muskegon where vessels and laboratory space are made available to support scientific investigations.

Also notable is GLERL’s historical partnership with the NOAA Cooperative Institutes (CIs). The CIs are academic research institutes, frequently co-located within NOAA research laboratories, to create a strong, long-term collaboration among government scientists in the laboratories and the associated academic institutions. Currently, there is great excitement at GLERL for the newly established Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), formerly known as the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research. CIGLR, hosted by the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), collaborates with nine university partners as part of the institute’s Regional Consortium. This collaborative arrangement expands the research capacity, intellectual expertise, and geographic reach of CIGLR and all its partners, while increasing GLERL’s ability to fulfill NOAA’s mission in the Great Lakes.

In keeping with the Great Lakes tradition of collaboration and partnership building, we are pleased to announce the creation GLERL’s new webpage, Collaborating with GLERL. Provided on the webpage is specific guidance on how to pursue collaboration and partnerships with GLERL in areas such as research partnerships, data access, event hosting, vessel operations, as well as internships and fellowships. Through this webpage, we hope to enable our partners to benefit from the valuable resources offered by NOAA GLERL.  We invite you to browse this webpage so you are fully aware of the opportunities that GLERL offers to help keep the Great Lakes great.

Visit the new webpage at https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/about/collaborating.html.


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A message from the Director – Hearts of GOLD: An opportunity for leadership training on diversity and inclusion

By Deborah H. Lee, Director, NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory Heartsof GOLD_Logo

I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Hearts of GOLD (Geosciences Opportunities for Leadership in Diversity) in Colorado Springs, Colorado on July 24-25. Hearts of GOLD is a National Science Foundation sponsored project led by a group of six investigators including NOAA’s LaToya Myles of the Office of Oceanic Research, Air Resources Laboratory. The goal of the project is to help leaders in geosciences become champions for diversity by teaching new tools, skills, and attitudes that include learning how to work with colleagues “different” from ourselves.

The driving question posed at the training was, “Why should we value diversity?”  In answering this question and others, we learned that social science research reveals that a diverse workforce can advance core elements for organizational success, such as enhanced innovation through creativity, increased diligence and a committed work ethic, more balanced decision making, robust problem-solving, as well as boosting a company’s bottom line. In looking beyond our organizational boundaries, diversity essentially produces a healthier society by including all of its members.

Our instructors, Drs. Dena R. Samuels and Stephany Rose of University of Colorado – Colorado Springs, led us through two days of often emotional and soul-searching discussion as we examined inclusivity, diversity, and social justice. We learned about implicit bias—a term that describes when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge. This bias often prevents us from achieving diversity by choosing to work with people most like ourselves or associated with positive stereotypes. To get a better sense of what is meant by this, you can assess your implicit biases at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/.

We also learned that even if we can overcome implicit bias to achieve a diverse organization, it may not be enough to drive innovation without a culture of genuine inclusivity.  Inclusivity is an intention or policy of including people who are considered “different,” resulting in them being excluded or marginalized, such as those who are handicapped or learning-disabled, or racial or sexual minorities.  We were encouraged to seek out new experiences that challenge our bias, slow down and be present in the moment to catch the bias, and then act differently and practice “priming”—observing positive images of people from stereotyped groups or simply calling to mind counter-stereotypical information. We were reminded that “If you aren’t actively including, you are probably accidentally excluding.”

One topic that struck a personal chord with me was the subject of “microaggression”—an act I had experienced many times over in my career, even recently, as a woman in a non-traditional field.  Microaggressions are subtle words, cues, and/or behaviors that insult, invalidate, or exclude individuals. They are often based on a disadvantaged social identity and often cue stereotypes, labeling one as an outsider.  The recipient often feels disempowered to address the giver of these microaggressions, due to a balance of power, causing the recipient to be impacted cumulatively via a “death by a thousand cuts.”  The intent of the giver is to perpetuate systems of power—to keep those in power, in power, and those oppressed, in oppression.

Another challenging topic was the systemic impacts of privilege and its counterweight, oppression.  Privilege is being treated in ways that make you feel automatically included and valued and is generally an unearned advantage, versus a personal achievement, based on how your identity aligns with what is considered normal and accepted.  It significantly affects performance in academics, interviews, life chances and longevity. To illustrate the impact of privilege, we played a game where each player was allotted 12 pennies, which were then pooled in the center of the table.  When asked a series of questions regarding our experiences of privilege, or lack thereof, and depending on the answers, we were instructed to either to take a penny (benefited from privilege) or put a penny back in the pool (denied privilege).  By the end of the game, some players had “earned” 12 or more pennies from the pool, while others had no pennies or even “owed” pennies. The lessons learned from playing this game were profound, to say the least.

Through my experience at Hearts of GOLD, I became keenly aware that diversity and inclusion are not only important for creativity and innovation, but they are also fundamental for social justice to come to fruition.  The principle of social justice requires that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.  This popular graphic (https://ehhsdean.com/tag/equity/#jp-carousel-959) illustrates the concepts of equality and equity, but makes the case that until barriers to entry are removed, social justice cannot be achieved.

As leaders in the geosciences, we left the class with a stronger awareness and understanding of the challenges we face both within ourselves and externally within our organizations, the skills and tools we could bring to bear, and how to remove the barriers to social justice to create the next generation of geoscientists.