NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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The HAB season is over, but the work goes on

It’s nearly winter here in the Great Lakes—our buoys are in the warehouse, our boats are making their way onto dry land, and folks in the lab are working hard to assess observed data, experiments, and other results from this field season.

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This is a retrospective animation showing the predicted surface chlorophyll concentrations estimated by the Experimental Lake Erie HAB Tracker model during the 2018 season. Surface chlorophyll concentrations are an indicator of the likely presence of HABs. For more information about how the HAB Tracker forecast model is produced and can be interpreted, visit our About the HAB Tracker webpage.

The harmful algal bloom (HAB) season is also long over in the region. The final Lake Erie HAB Bulletin was sent out on Oct. 11, as the Microcystis had declined in satellite imagery and toxins decreased to low detection limits in samples. In the seasonal assessment, sent out by NOAA’s Centers for Coastal Ocean Science on Oct. 26, it was determined that the season saw a relatively mild bloom—despite its early arrival in the lake—and the bloom’s severity was significantly less than that which was predicted earlier in the season. These bulletins and outlooks are compiled using several models. Over the winter, the teams working on the models take what they learn from the previous season, and update their models for future use.

Back in the lab, the HABs team—researchers from both GLERL and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR)—will spend the winter analyzing data they collected through a variety of observing systems. This summer was packed with the use of new observing technologies, like hyperspectral cameras and the Environmental Sample Processor (in case you missed it, check out this fun photo story of the experimental deployment of a 3rd generation ESP). In addition, GLERL and CIGLR staff maintained a weekly sampling program program, from which scientists are analyzing and archiving samples and conducting experiments.

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Aerial photograph of the harmful algal bloom in Western Basin of Lake Erie on July 2, 2018, (Photo Credit: Aerial Associates Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick). Pilots from Aerodata have been flying over Lake Erie this summer to map out the general scope of the algal blooms. In addition to these amazing photos, during the flyovers, additional images are taken by a hyperspectral imager (mounted on the back of the aircraft) to improve our understanding of how to map and detect HABs. The lead researcher for this project is Dr. Andrea VanderWoude, a NOAA contractor and remote sensing specialist with Cherokee Nation Businesses. For more images, check out our album on Flickr.

This lab work is super important for understanding the drivers of toxic algae in the Great Lakes. For instance, in a new study released this month, researchers looking at samples from previous years found that “ . . . the initial buildup of blooms can happen at a much higher rate and over a larger spatial extent than would otherwise be possible, due to the broad presence of viable cells in sediments throughout the lake,” according to the lead author Christine Kitchens, a research technician at CIGLR, who works here in the GLERL lab. This type of new information can be incorporated into the models used to make the annual bloom forecasts.

As you can see, our work doesn’t end when the field season is over.  In spring 2019, when the boats and buoys are back in the water and samples are being drawn from the lakes, researchers will already have a jump on their work, having spent the winter months analyzing previous years, preparing, and applying what they’ve learned to the latest version of the Experimental HAB Tracker, advanced observing technologies, and cutting-edge research on harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes.


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A message from the director: A global community convenes on the shores of Lake Geneva, France to share lessons learned on large lakes

I had the pleasure of attending the European Large Lakes Symposium (ELLS) – International Association of Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) 2018 international conference entitled “Big Lakes, Small World” during the week of September 23-28, 2018 in Evian, France on the shores of Lake Geneva.  

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The ELLS-IAGLR symposium drew scientists studying large lakes systems from around the world to the shores of Lake Geneva in Evian, France.

This symposium was notable for many reasons, including being the first IAGLR meeting held outside of North America, in conjunction with the 5th European Large Lakes Symposium. I was impressed with the strong Great Lakes presence at ELLS. In addition to myself and Philip Chu representing the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), colleagues from the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR)—Tom Johengen, Dmitry and Raisa Beletsky—also attended. There were also a number of our Laurentian Great Lakes partners from around the basin participating in the symposium.

Like French cuisine, the conference “menu” was jam-packed with scientific gourmet entrees, which we gorged on each day from 8:45 in the morning until after the poster session concluding at 7:00 each evening.  The conference was held in the historic Palais Lumiere (below), formerly a bathhouse, circa 1902, converted into a convention and cultural center in 2006—where better to hold a conference focused on water?

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The symposium was held at the historic Palais Lumiere  formerly a bathhouse, circa 1902, converted into a convention and cultural center in 2006.

Presentations featured an array of topics, including the chemical, physical, and biological aspects of lakes exotic as the Amazonian floodplain lakes and Russia’s Lake Peipsi, as well as those large lakes familiar to us, such as the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, and Lake Tahoe. Common issues of concern raised during the symposium involved the dynamic changes caused by multiple stressors, namely, increasing temperature, human populations, invasive species, and harmful algal blooms. One observation that I’m excited to report is the number of times NOAA data, products, and services were referenced in talks—a telltale sign that scientists worldwide are relying on NOAA expertise. Items ranged from a Great Lakes sticker on monitoring equipment to the use of graphics like NOAA global surface temperature maps and GLERL food web charts (twice!).  I also spotted a quote pulled from our 5-year science review and even one from our venerable Craig Stow (see image below). I counted at least 18 presentations that cited a connection to NOAA.

As a Great Lakes stakeholder attending this international symposium, I would like to convey to our Great Lakes partners from around the region that we, as a community, can take pride and satisfaction that our daily work results in global impact on large lakes—small world!

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Michelle Selzer, Lake Coordinator with the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, quotes GLERL’s Craig Stow on the topic of establishing phosphorus load targets in Lake Erie: “Going forward, our willingness and ability to monitor, evaluate, and update the targets will be more important than the original targets.”

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Philip Chu with Ph.D candidate Theo Baracchini and Dr. Shubham Krishna of Physics and Aquatic Systems Laboratory, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

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CIGLR scientist, Dmitry Beletsky, presents at ELLS on a CIGLR/GLERL research project to advance hypoxia forecasting.

 


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From scuba diving to lab instruments, Dave Fanslow encourages young scientists to “stay flexible”

A man stands in a laboratory near a black, cylindrical instrument.

Dave Fanslow stands with GLERL’s fluoroprobe.

Dave Fanslow is a GLERL biologist of 25 years. He’s basically done it all, but these days he takes care of the lab’s fluoroprobe – a special instrument that measures different types of algae using light beams. Read our interview with Dave to learn more about the fluoroprobe, along with a decades-old scientific mystery that still haunts him and a fear he had to overcome on the job.

How would you describe your job?

My job is to support the principal investigators with technical know-how in the laboratory. I spend a lot of my day working on instruments right now – the flowcam and the fluoroprobe — which are both used to assess and describe HABs, or harmful algal blooms.

The fluoroprobe is a new device that uses LED lights that trigger a response from the algae, which have unique pigments in them that respond to very distinct wavelengths – so it’s able to distinguish between types of algae simply by flashing an LED light as you pull it through the water. It first came out in about 2014. We had one of the first here at GLERL.

What is the most interesting thing you’ve accomplished in your job?

The most interesting thing that I worked on was actually an unresolved question, the disappearance of the Diporeia from Lake Michigan. There was an amphipod organism called Diporeia that is still present in tiny numbers but used to be really common, and was the basis for the lower food web in Lake Michigan prior to the expansion of quagga mussels. In the mid-90’s, those organisms plummeted from numbers of around 10,000 per square meter down to practically zero in the large majority of the lake.

There was some assumption of effect by zebra mussels and quagga mussels, but we never did really figure that out. The change in the food web was occurring anyway, where quagga mussels were going to take over and dominate the system…so the exact reason for the disappearance of the Diporeia didn’t really matter in the ultimate outcome. But, it was a mystery that piqued my interest and I wish we had been able to describe it. It may have been relevant for some other instance. If it was a disease, if it was an invertebrate disease that was introduced by some other invasive species, that’s a form of microbiological pollution, and it would’ve been nice to nail that down and figure that out.

What do you feel is the most significant challenge in your field today?

The hardest part about doing what we do is the disconnect that I sometimes feel exists between policymakers and scientists. And, I know that’s something that scientists and researchers have struggled with forever, it’s not new, and it’s an ongoing problem to communicate the issues and hope that policymakers make good decisions based on good information.

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

Most of my inspiration comes from encounters with the public, family and friends who are invariably enthusiastic and concerned about the Great Lakes. People in Michigan in particular, it’s part of our identities, and so that’s where I get my motivation because I know people care.

A man in a laboratory points at graphs on a computer screen.

Dave Fanslow explains some data coming from the fluoroprobe.

There’s a fun story about a fear you had to overcome to do this job. Can you tell us about that?

When I first got the job interview, I was told that they wanted me to do scuba diving to collect zebra mussels. This was at the very beginning of the zebra mussel invasion in 1992. I wasn’t super comfortable with swimming and the water, but I thought I would check it out. So I did my research, read about it, went to the pool and practiced, and said yeah I’ll take the job. Then I got trained at NOAA diving headquarters in Seattle where they have retired Navy Seals conducting the training. Then, I conducted over 500 dives over the next 6 or 7 years, mostly related to collecting zebra mussels and then also in the early stages of the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary, observing some of the wrecks and establishing moorings up there.

How would you advise young people interested in science as a career path, or someone interested in your particular field?

My general advice would be that they be flexible in terms of not narrowing down their discipline too much until they get out in the field and discover what the opportunities are. I know that in my career, what I have worked on, the area of technical expertise has ranged wildly over the 25 years I’ve been at GLERL. From picking bugs initially, to measuring lipid content, to measuring enzyme content in mussels and Diporeia…to now I’m working with electronic instruments. So, be flexible.

What do you wish people knew about scientists or research?

Well, one thing I think that people tend to assume about scientists is that they’re eggheads who are narrowly focused on their own work to the exclusion of the rest of the big questions about what’s going on in the environment and in society in general. So, scientists are well-rounded and multi-dimensional people too.

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

When I’m not at the lab I have raced my bike a lot over the years, starting when I was an undergraduate. I am now kind of transitioning into middle age and doing other things like gardening and canoeing and fishing. Usually it involves being outside in the environment and making observations about the plants and the bugs and the weather and the things that are around me. We have a place on Lake Superior, and just being there and seeing the change in the weather from day to day and hour to hour is a blast; it’s one of my favorite things.


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A message from the Director: Great Lakes research highlighted at the 2018 World Environmental and Water Resources Congress

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(Left to right) Cristiane Surbeck, PE, D.WRE,  EWRI President (2018), Associate Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Mississippi; Sridhar Kamojjala, PE, D.WRE, EWRI 2018 Conference Chair, Las Vegas Valley Water District; Deborah H. Lee, PE, D.WRE, Past President American Academy of Water Resources Engineers, NOAA GLERL Director

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

Recently, I had the opportunity to bring NOAA in the Great Lakes to the 2018 World Environmental and Water Resources Congress. The conference, held in Minneapolis the first week of June, brought together of several hundred civil engineers and members of the Environmental Water Resources Institute (EWRI). The Institute is the largest of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 9 technical institutes, with about 20,000 members serving as the world’s premier community of practice for environmental and water-related issues.

As the invited keynote luncheon speaker, I presented, “Keeping the Great Lakes Great: Using Stewardship and Science to Accelerate Restoration.” In keeping with this year’s theme of “Protecting and Securing Water and the Environment for Future Generations,” my focus was NOAA’s science and restoration success stories, highlighting the many accomplishments of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

I took the audience on a virtual tour of NOAA’s most exciting and innovative projects. Among those discussed were Areas of Concern, preventing and controlling invasive species, reducing nutrient runoff that contributes to harmful/ nuisance algal blooms, restoring habitat to protect native species, and generating ground-breaking science. 

I purposefully took a multimedia approach in reaching out to the EWRI community, recognizing that not all may be familiar with the Great Lakes and NOAA’s role in the region. To keep the audience engaged and entertained, several short videos were integrated throughout my talk, including the Telly award-winning “NOAA in the Great Lakes” and the short animation “How Great are the Great Lakes?” Three video clips on Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects that highlighted the positive environmental and economic impacts of NOAA’s work were also incorporated.

Overall, I see my participation in this high profile conference as a great opportunity to raise awareness on the Great Lakes and NOAA’s mission, and was very pleased with the interest and enthusiastic response to my presentation. In looking ahead, I will be serving as EWRI’s next vice-president beginning this October and then sequentially as president-elect, president and past president in the following years. I look forward to continuing to work as steward for Great Lakes issues and advancing NOAA’s work in the region.


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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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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.