NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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Photo story: Using an AUV to track algae in Lake Erie

In late July and early September, during the peak of the 2018 harmful algal bloom in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, NOAA GLERL, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) and CIGLR researchers teamed up with a group of scientists and engineers from the Monterey Bay Research Institute (MBARI). Their mission: to test how well a third-generation environmental sample processor (3GESP), mounted inside a long-range autonomous underwater vehicle (LRAUV), can track and analyze toxic algae in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. You can read more about the purpose of this project in this great news story by MBARI’s Kim Fulton-Bennett.

Below is a photo story showing all (well, much) of the hard work that went into this test deployment.

First, the new gear had to be shipped from California to the GLERL laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

 

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Upon arrival, Jim Birch, Director of the MBARI SURF (Sensors Underwater Research of the Future) Center, & Bill Ussler, MBARI biogeochemist, got straight to work in GLERL’s Marine Instrumentation Lab.

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The inside of the 3G ESP has a lot of moving parts. Since this is the first time the team is testing it in freshwater, before it can go out, everything needs to be fine-tuned to work in a variety of conditions in Lake Erie (more on that later.)

So. Many. Moving. Parts.

 

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Once everything is in working order, the 3GESP gets inserted into an LRAUV or long-range autonomous underwater vehicle (the torpedo-looking thing). This gives the 3GESP the ability to move around in the water all by itself once researchers have set parameters for it. The team has named this particular vehicle, Makai, which is Hawaiian for “toward or by the sea.” Seems appropriate! That’s Brian Kieft, MBARI software engineer, on the right. He plays a crucial role in making sure Makai does her job.

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All hands on deck for a few more tweaks.

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Once everything is installed tightly, helium is added into the canister to check for leaks. CIGLR engineer, Russ Miller, is working with Jim to fill it up.

Now, the team is ready to head out to Lake Erie. Here’s where things start to get exciting!

 

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Before the team sets Makai free to track the algal bloom in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, they must first check her ballast and trim. This is especially important for such a shallow lake (relative to where the team has been testing this technology in the deep canyons of of Monterey Bay off the coast of California.)

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Brian has to do all of the hard work.

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Because, science.

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Time to load Makai onto the NOAA vessel, which is stationed in La Salle, Michigan. Captain Kent Baker, a contractor with NOAA, is in the background operating the crane. Kent takes NOAA and CIGLR researchers and technicians out to bi-weekly sampling stations, helps deploy buoys and other instrumentation, and is at the ready for pretty much anything that needs to happen in Lake Erie.

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Once she’s all settled onto the boat, the team takes Makai to the first deployment location.

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The inaugural deployment was set to match up with the bi-weekly sampling stations.

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Look closely and you’ll see Makai off on her way!

Makai and the team spent nearly two weeks tracking, sampling, adjusting, and learning about using this technology to track algal toxins in Lake Erie.

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The team used the images from GLERL’s Experimental Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) Tracker to determine where to send Makai.

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Then, they would determine how many samples to take, and program her to go to specific waypoints.

Remember when we said this Lake Erie mission will be different than the ones the team has performed in Monterey Bay? Well, here’s one example of how.

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After a few hours of no communication, and a little hunting, this is how the team found Makai. Two problems here: One, with the propellor up and the nose down, Makai cannot transmit data, including her location, as the transmitter only works above water. And, two, well . . .

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The reason she was nose down in the first place is because Lake Erie is pretty shallow, and she’d taken on quite a bit of mud.

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Once she was all cleaned up, the team set Makai out again to complete the rest of her mission.

Once the deployment was over, the research didn’t stop there.

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Archive samples were taken so that folks back in the lab could further analyze them.

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Here’s GLERL’s Observing Systems and Advanced Technology (OSAT) branch chief, Steve Ruberg (left), along with Paul Den Uyl, a researcher with CIGLR, helping Bill extract the sample filters from the cartridges.

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The filters are being collected for analysis of DNA. The DNA will be extracted from each filter and analyzed. We’re looking at absolute quantity of known microcystin producing toxin genes in samples collected, information on bacterial community composition, and information on eukaryotic organism community composition. The samples will also analyzed through shotgun sequencing. This is where all of the genes in the sample are turned into human readable information and can be combined to make what can be thought of as an organism’s genetic instruction guide (what genes it has). This information will be very helpful in better understanding what causes the algae to be toxic (not all algae is toxic).

 


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Photo story: Taking a closer look at how invasive mussels are changing the Great Lakes food web

The invasion of zebra and quagga mussels in the Great Lakes is taking a toll on the ecosystem. To investigate these ecological changes, scientists from GLERL and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) are doing experimentation on how quagga mussels affect the lower food web by filtering large amounts of phytoplankton out of the water.  Scientists are also investigating how mussel feeding and excretion of nutrients drive harmful algal blooms (HABs) in growth stimulation, extent, location, and toxicity.

The following experimental activities are being conducted under controlled conditions to look for changes in living and nonliving things in the water before and after quagga mussel feeding.

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Scientists are using quagga mussels captured from Lakes Michigan and Erie to understand how invasive mussels impact the lower food web. Prior to experimentation, the mussels are housed in cages where they graze on phytoplankton in water kept at the same temperature as the lakes. This helps acclimate them to natural lake conditions.

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The research team, led GLERL’s Hank Vanderploeg (front right), coordinates the different phases of the experiment. By filtering water before and after quagga mussel feeding, team members learn about the effect of these mussels on levels of phytoplankton (as measured by chlorophyll), nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), particulate matter, carbon, bacteria, and genetic material.

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CIGLR research associates, Glenn Carter and Paul Glyshaw, pour lake water into sample bottles for processing at different stages of the experiment.

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GLERL’s, Joann Cavaletto, pours lake water from the graduated cylinder into the filter funnel. She is filtering for particulate phosphorus samples. She also measures total chlorophyll and fractionated chlorophyll based on 3 size fractions; >20 µm, between 20 µm and 2 µm, and between 2 µm and 0.7 µm.

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GLERL’s Dave Fanslow, operates the FluoroProbe displaying the level of pigments from different phytoplankton throughout the feeding experiment: pre-feeding of quagga mussel, progression of feeding on an hourly basis, and final measurements at the end of the experiment. The FluoroProbe measurements determine the concentration of pigments, such as chlorophyll, that quagga mussels filter out of the water throughout the experiment.

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The FluoroProbe emits highly specific wavelengths of light using an LED array, which then trigger a fluorescence response in algae pigments and allow the immediate classification of green and blue green algae, cryptomonads, and diatoms.

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University of Michigan scientists, Vincent Denef (left and upper right, kneeling in bottom right) and Nikesh Dahal (standing in bottom right), filter water before and after quagga mussel feeding. They are looking at changes in the bacterial community based on the genetic composition of groups, focusing on the variability of toxic production in cyanobacteria in harmful algal blooms. Following the filtration phase of the experiment, they will conduct DNA and RNA sequencing for toxicity gene expression in the cyanobacteria.


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Andrea VanderWoude blends science and art to study the Great Lakes from the sky

A woman sits in a small airplane with headphones and a mic on, looking out the window at a bay on Lake Michigan Below.

Andrea VanderWoude on a flight over Grand Traverse Bay.

Andrea VanderWoude is a remote sensing specialist — that means she’s looking at things from far away. Whether she’s studying harmful algal blooms or rip currents, her job is to pull information out of pictures taken from airplanes or satellites. What makes her extra good at it? She’s got an artistic streak! Read on to learn more. 

How would you describe your job?

As a remote sensor, I use satellites and airborne cameras to monitor the Great Lakes – specifically harmful algal blooms, rip currents and submerged aquatic vegetation. I am an oceanographer working on the Great Lakes and most people wonder how that is possible. The lakes are so large they behave similarly to the ocean. I coordinate flights out of the Ann Arbor, Michigan airport with a contracted pilot that we work with and we put a small hyperspectral camera in the back of the airplane to take photos of the lakes.

Hyperspectral means that there are many discrete [color] bands or channels that are used (these colors are more detailed than the human eye can see). These channels can be used to map harmful algal blooms, which absorb, scatter and reflect light in a specific way. The hyperspectral camera is also able to fly underneath the clouds where passive sensors on satellites are unable to see. My day is spent programming, writing algorithms to process the images and looking at beautiful imagery. It is a wonderful blend of science and art!

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

Every year we fly over the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to monitor submerged aquatic vegetation and specifically for cladophora. As a northern Michigander growing up in that area, it is always amazing to see that area from the sky and to dream about hiking the Manitou Islands again. I also enjoy contributing to aiding the mapping of submerged aquatic vegetation in an area that is personally important to me.

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

The most significant challenge I think is keeping up with the changing technology at the speed it is developing at this time. We are working on getting our new hyperspectral camera on an unmanned aerial system (UAS) for rapid response and I am really interested in using UAS’s for frequent monitoring of rip current troughs in the Great Lakes.

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

I found my inspiration from growing up on the lakes and my parents always made a point of being on the water during all times of the year, either on Lake Michigan or Lake Superior. I have always felt connected to the water and jump in the lake during every month of the year, as a surfer on the Great Lakes. My ideas come from the public and what public needs could be supported. While living on the west side of Michigan, I have really seen the effect of rip currents and was recently stuck in one myself. It was a scary event and even furthered my desire to help warning and detection of rip currents.

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

I would advise women to get outside. When asked this question, people frequently turn towards an answer that involves STEM involvement but for me, and I think this also rings true for my Michigan Tech cohorts from undergrad, it was getting outside and learning about the natural world that sparked my interest in science. I was allowed to watch a limited amount of television as a kid and my mom would send me outside to play in the woods. I would spend my time creating forts around trees in the woods or we would go to the lake to swim for hours. This love of the outdoors continued through my undergraduate and graduate degrees with a curiosity to learn how the earth was formed, different rock types or how ocean dynamics and biology could be measured from space.

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

I love to bake, learn about different plants, go rock hunting, trail running, rustic camping, stand up paddle boarding and I am newly returning to surfing but on the Great Lakes. I also spend an enormous amount of time with my boys on the beach, searching for cool rocks or treasures on the beach.

What do you wish people knew about scientists or research?

Many scientists also have an artistic outlet as well as their science life. It creates a life-balance. I personally find balance spending my free-time creating art from found objects on the beach, drawing, painting and baking unique pastries. Constantly a life in motion, as a pendulum between science and art.

Dr. Andrea VanderWoude is a contractor and remote sensing specialist with Cherokee Nation Businesses. She is currently working with researchers from NOAA GLERL and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research.


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Casting a high tech sampling net to learn more about the Great Lakes ecosystem

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Researchers at GLERL are using a new tool, a MOCNESS, to study the Great Lakes.

In the Great Lakes, communities of plants and animals vary depending on where and when you look. They are dispersed up and down and all around in the water, making it tricky to collect them for research studies. To answer questions about these organisms and how they interact in the Great Lakes ecosystem, scientists from NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and CIGLR (Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research) are using a new high tech sampling tool called a MOCNESS (Multiple Opening and Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System).

GLERL’s MOCNESS is the first of its kind to be used in a freshwater system. Scientists are hopeful that this technology will lead to new discoveries about the Great Lake ecosystem, such as where plankton (microscopic aquatic plants and animals) live and what causes their distributions to change over space and time. The MOCNESS will also help scientists learn more about predator-prey interactions that involve zooplankton (microscopic aquatic animals), phytoplankton (microscopic aquatic plants), and larval and juvenile fishes.

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A closer look the MOCNESS (Multiple Opening and Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System)

Keeping track of changes in plant and animal communities in the Great Lakes over time is important, especially with changes in climate, the onslaught of invasive species, and land use practices causing increased nutrient runoff into the lakes.

The MOCNESS is a big improvement over the traditional single mesh sized sample collection nets. The sampling system provided by this new tool has a series of nets of different mesh sizes to collect different sized organisms (see a few examples in the gallery below). The operator can remotely open and close these nets, much like an accordion. At the heart of the system is a set of sensors that measure depth, temperature, oxygen, light levels, and the green pigment found in algae, Chlorophyll-a. Because this data can be viewed in real time on the vessel, the operator can better determine what is going on below the water surface and choose where and when to sample different sized organisms.

Here are some of the key questions that the scientists hope to answer using this advanced technology:

  • How do plankton and larval fish respond to environmental gradients (water temperature, dissolved oxygen, UV radiation) over the course of the day, season, and across years?
  • What are the major causes for changing distributions of the animals across space and over time (long-term, seasonal, 24-hour cycle)?
  • How do these changes in affect reproduction, survival, and growth of individuals and their communities?

The MOCNESS has been tested in the waters of lakes Michigan and Huron for the past three years. The team, led by Dr. Ed Rutherford, is supporting GLERL’s long term study of the Great Lakes food webs and fisheries. “The MOCNESS will enhance the ability of our scientists to more effectively observe the dynamics of Great Lakes ecosystem over space and time—a critical research investment that will pay off for years to come,” says Rutherford.

This year, the team is actively processing samples that were collected in the spring and will continue to collect more samples through the fall. The MOCNESS will support ongoing ecological research on the Great Lakes and the results will be shared with others around the region who are working to make decisions about how to manage Great Lakes fisheries and other water resources.

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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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Great Lakes in winter: Water levels and ice cover

The Great Lakes, along with their connecting waterways and watersheds, make up the largest lake system on the planet—more than 20% of the world’s surface freshwater! Water levels on the lakes change in response to a number of factors, and these changes can happen quickly. Changing water levels can have both positive and negative impacts on shipping, fisheries, tourism, and coastal infrastructure like roads, piers, and wetlands.

Currently, water levels on all of the Great Lakes are above their monthly averages, and have been developing since the spring of 2013, when a record-setting two-year rise in water levels began on the upper Great Lakes. Extreme conditions in spring of 2017 produced flooding and widespread damage at the downstream end of the basin—Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. In case you missed it, check out our infographic on this flooding event.

So, what’s happening now that it’s winter?

As we entered the late fall-early winter of 2017-2018, a warm weather pattern had forecasters looking toward a fairly warm winter. However, in late December, the conditions changed and a much colder than normal weather pattern took many folks living in the Great Lakes by surprise. Much like how water levels can change quickly in the Great Lakes, so can ice cover. Due to frigid air temperatures, between December 20 and January 7, total ice cover on the lakes jumped 26.3%. Lake Erie alone jumped up to nearly 90%!

 

 

After January 7th, ice coverage dropped a bit as the air temperatures warmed, then rose again as temperatures went back down, showing again how vulnerable the lakes are to even the slightest changes. Compare where we are now to where we were 2 years ago at this time, and you’ll easily see how variable seasonal ice cover can be in the Great Lakes.

Image depicting Great Lakes total ice cover on on January 15, 2018, compared to 2017 and 2016.

What’s the outlook for ice and water levels?

Below, you’ll find what GLERL researchers expect to see for ice cover this winter, as well as the U.S. Army Corps’ water levels forecast into Spring 2018. Be sure to read further to find out more about the science that goes into these predictions!

—GLERL’s 2018 Seasonal Ice Cover Projection for the Great Lakes—

On 1/3/2018, NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory updated the maximum 2018 Great Lakes basinwide ice cover projection to 60%. The long-term average is 55%. The updated forecast reflects changes in teleconnection patterns (large air masses that determine our regional weather) since early December 2017—movement from a strong to a weak La Nina, a negative to a positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation, and a positive to a negative North Atlantic Oscillation. These patterns combine to create colder than average conditions for the Great Lakes.

—Water Levels forecast into spring 2018—

According to the most recent weekly water level update from the U.S. Army Corps, water levels for all of the Great Lakes continue to be above monthly average levels and above last year’s levels at this time. All of the lakes have declined in the last month.  Note that ice developing in the channels and on the lake surface can cause large changes in daily levels during the winter, especially for Lake St. Clair. Over the next month, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron are expected to continue their seasonal decline. Lake St.Clair, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario are expected to begin their seasonal rise.


 

More information on water levels and ice cover forecasting

How are water levels predicted in the Great Lakes?

Forecasts of Great Lakes monthly-average water levels are based on computer models, including some from NOAA GLERL, along with more than 150 years of data from past weather and water level conditions. The official 6-month forecast is produced each month through a binational partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

At GLERL, research on water levels in the Great Lakes analyzes all of the components of the Great Lakes water budget. The information we gather is used to improve forecast models. The infographic below goes into more detail about the Great Lakes water budget.

Image depicting the makeup of water budgets in the Great Lakes

How does winter ice cover affect water levels?

As mentioned in the recently released Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook for the Great Lakes, water levels in the Great Lakes tend to decline in late fall and early winter, mainly due to reduced runoff and streamflow combined with higher over-lake evaporation caused by the temperature difference between air and water. Factors such as surface water temperatures, long stretches of cold or warm air temperatures, and winds all impact the amount of lake ice cover as well as extreme winter events, such as lake-effect snow—which we’ve already seen plenty of this winter—and vice versa. All of these factors influence winter water levels in the Great Lakes. The timing and magnitude of snow melt and spring runoff will be major players in the spring rise.

Looking for more info?

You can find more about GLERL’s water levels research, on this downloadable .pdf of the GLERL fact sheet on Great Lakes Water Levels.

View current, historical, and projected water levels on the Great Lakes Water Levels Dashboard at https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/dashboard/portal.html.

For more on GLERL’s research on ice in the Great Lakes, check out the Great Lakes Ice fact sheet, or check out our website at https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/ice/.

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.