NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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New under-ice observing capabilities could lead to new discoveries in the Great Lakes

During the dog days of summer here in the Great Lakes, scientists at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) are already thinking about the ice that will form on the lakes this winter.

This year, NOAA GLERL and a team of federal, university, and industry partners are conducting test deployments of an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) in Lake Michigan, with the ultimate goal of using it under lake ice during winter to collect ecological and water quality data. Observations of winter ecology are difficult to obtain compared to observations in the ice-free season, when most fieldwork takes place – which makes this hunt for winter data especially important. 

In the world of Great Lakes research, the start of winter traditionally signals the end of fieldwork for the year. Buoys come out of the water, and research vessels – which aren’t designed for use in ice-covered waters – are docked for the season. Scientists get to work analyzing new data from the previous field season and tuning up field equipment for a fresh start in the spring. This break leads to a several-month gap in most of GLERL’s field data, but this project aims to fill that gap using the high-tech SAAB Sabertooth AUV. 

Video by Great Lakes Outreach Media.

One underwater robot, many important jobs

One of the AUV’s main tasks will be to collect water quality data, benthic (lake bottom) data, and fish and zooplankton observations. These observations will be collected using an acoustic imaging system, and will contribute to our understanding of important wintertime ecological processes in the Great Lakes. While summer is widely considered to be the peak time of year for biological productivity, biological processes still occur during the winter and are understudied in the Great Lakes. NOAA GLERL’s winter observations may even lead to unexpected discoveries, as new GLERL data suggest that some Great Lakes biological processes may actually accelerate during the winter months. Ice cover is seen as a key variable in the regulation of biological processes in the lakes during winter. Enhancing our understanding of these processes is particularly important as climate change may have implications for the extent, thickness, and duration of seasonal ice cover. 

The Saab Sabertooth is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that NOAA GLERL will operate under ice during winter in the Great Lakes.

The AUV also will characterize winter distributions of prey fish using a multi-frequency echosounder. Spawning in prey fish species like bloater also take place during winter, in turn affecting predator stocks (like lake trout) that help underpin a 7 billion-dollar annual Great Lakes fishery. Additionally, the AUV will contribute valuable data on the distribution of invasive mussels to NOAA GLERL’s 25-year ecological monitoring program. The AUV will map the locations of invasive mussel reefs on the lake floor using sonar technology and high-resolution imagery.

World-class technology in the Great Lakes

The SAAB Sabertooth AUV is no average piece of fieldwork equipment; it’s among the most advanced and complex underwater vehicles in the world. Navigation is one of the biggest challenges AUVs face, since GPS signals are unavailable underwater. This AUV contains an Inertial Navigation System, which keeps track of the vehicle’s movements with extreme precision. Based on its known deployment location, the vehicle uses this navigation system to calculate its exact location throughout its mission with minimal error. When within range, acoustic beacons anchored nearby in the lake are also used to confirm the AUV’s location.

In addition to the AUV itself, this effort also includes the development of a fully integrated docking station that allows the vehicle to recharge its battery and transfer the data it’s collected during its winter excursion. The vehicle’s ability to safely dock, charge its battery, and transmit data to scientists is a critical component in its ability to function under ice without human help.

Preparing this AUV for deployment is no small task. Requiring multiple computers and a whole team of people, the initial calibration of the vehicle takes at least a full day.

The large size of the AUV provides ample space, flotation, and electrical resources for simultaneously carrying a large suite of sensors that make multitasking a breeze for this high-tech vehicle. The various sensors work together to ensure the vehicle stays upright, avoids collisions with boats, and doesn’t accidentally hit the bottom of the lake. Plus, robust propellers allow the AUV to make precise turns and hover at a fixed depth, making it much easier to maneuver than its torpedo-shaped cousins.

When it’s not in the Great Lakes helping NOAA with environmental research, this vehicle can usually be found performing tunnel inspections at hydroelectric power facilities around the world – including locations like California, South Korea, and Turkey. The AUV’s ability to navigate through these tunnels allows them to be inspected without being drained, saving considerable time and money. Just as it navigates through these enclosed tunnels, this impressive underwater robot will soon be navigating its way under Great Lakes ice cover.

NOAA GLERL’s partners on this project include Hibbard Inshore, the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).


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NOAA Wave Glider Camaro Gathers Key Data During 25-Day Cruise in Lake Superior


The NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and Michigan Technological University (MTU) Great Lakes Research Center recently teamed up on the deployment of a wave glider in Lake Superior. The chemical and biological data collected will help researchers understand more about the Lake Superior foodweb and also be used to validate satellite information.

Autonomous wave glider that was recently deployed into Lake Superior by the MTU Great Lakes Research Center. Credit: Sarah Atkinson/Michigan Tech

Information gathered by autonomous vehicles, such as the wave glider, helps fine-tune satellite algorithms (instructions that tell a satellite how to interpret what it’s seeing). Satellites are a great tool for observing the lakes, as they provide a broader view than that from the ground. Researchers create Great Lakes-specific algorithms because those used in the ocean often do not work well in the lakes. The data collected by the wave glider will help validate the algorithms and allow researchers to understand more about the lakes, such as primary productivity (See MTU’s blog post for more.)

A team of researchers from MTU deployed the wave glider on August 30, 2021 and it spent 25 days surveying the lake and collecting data. The plan is to make the data public through the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) so that information can be used in many ways including model development.

Path of the wave glider deployed on August 30th, 2021 and recovered on September 22, 2021 off the eastern coast of the Keweenaw Peninsula, near Bete Grise.

“It is a privilege for the Great Lakes Research Center to collaborate with NOAA GLERL on the wave glider experiment in Lake Superior, a first of its kind,” said Andrew Barnard, director of Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center. “This project continues to build a strong partnership between our organizations to push the boundaries of autonomy and sensing technologies. These new technologies in the Great Lakes support a better understanding of the physical processes in the lakes and will directly result in improved management insight for policy makers.”

Steve Ruberg of NOAA GLERL is thrilled with the MTU partnership as it expands our ability to collect data throughout the lakes. “Uncrewed vehicles give us the persistent large spatial observational capability to get in situ observations that will allow us to validate Great Lakes remote sensing.”

Left to right: Michigan Tech R/V Agassiz Jamey Anderson, assistant director of marine operations, Michigan Tech Great Lakes Research Center; Tim Havens, incoming director of the Great Lakes Research Center (January 2022) and John Lenters, associate research scientist at the Great Lakes Research Center ready the wave glider for deployment. Credit: Sarah Atkinson/Michigan Tech

This research project is a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI). Federal and state agencies, tribal groups, non-governmental organizations and academic researchers from the United States and Canada team up yearly to assess conditions in one of the five Great Lakes. The survey focuses on a series of research areas that are tailored to the unique challenges and data needs associated with each lake.


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Eight years of Great Lakes underwater glider data now available to the public

CIGLR’s Russ Miller deploying glider in Lake Huron, June 2017

NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) recently posted eight years’ worth of Great Lakes autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), or “glider data ”  on NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Underwater Glider Data Assembly Center (DAC) map. The map is a collaborative effort and includes current and historical glider missions dating back to 2005 from around the planet. This data is useful to government agencies, researchers, environmental managers, and citizens who use Great Lakes data for better understanding the characteristics of Great Lakes water.

CIGLR glider just before a deployment in Lake Michigan at the NOAA GLERL Lake Michigan Field Station in Muskegon, MI.

The collection and analysis of this data is a close collaboration between NOAA GLERL, CIGLR and partner institutions. CIGLR owns and operates the glider, and it is deployed using NOAA GLERL vessels. Data managers and researchers from both organizations are working together to make this data as useful and accessible as possible. This cooperative project, which has been funded by the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS; a part of the IOOS program), aims to support science, public safety, and security through the use of unmanned systems (UxS).

Glider Tech Specs

This glider is buoyancy-driven, meaning it controls its depth in the water by inflating and deflating a “bladder” that in turn makes it sink or float. It typically operates at around 30 meters (100 feet) below the lake surface, but can go as deep as 200 meters (650 feet) when needed. While the glider is able to work on it’s own, scientists wirelessly communicate with it regularly throughout its journey when it’s at the surface. It’s programmed to resurface regularly for check-ins, so we always know right where it is and we can even instruct it to change its mission path if necessary. It may only travel an average of 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) per hour, but its missions can last up to 60 days and provide us with amazing data sets to help answer questions about the Great Lakes ecosystem. Check out the video below from NOAA’s Ocean Service and visit this fact page for more on how the glider works.

The importance of data collection

With every deployment, the glider measures the water’s physical properties such as temperature, mineral content, pressure, and salinity. (Yes, even the Great Lakes have a tiny bit of salinity!) It also measures biological properties such as chlorophyll fluorescence and concentrations of dissolved organic matter, which indicate the region’s level of primary biological productivity (the amount of organic matter produced by phytoplankton in the water). Phytoplankton might be tiny, but their productivity is extremely important to the lakes’ ecosystems because it provides nutrients to the rest of the food web.

CIGLR glider floating just below the surface of the water.

When you piece together all these day-to-day measurements, you can use them to study seasonal changes such as movement of the thermocline – or steep temperature gradient in the lake – which can impact the rate of biological activity in the spring and summer. The size and intensity of spring algal blooms and occasional “whiting events” (accumulations of calcium carbonate particles in the water due to increased biological productivity) are other examples of seasonal biological phenomena the glider can observe. The glider collects high-quality data efficiently and cost-effectively, day and night in all weather conditions, ultimately allowing us to collect more data in a shorter amount of time than is possible with traditional ship-based methods. The robust datasets it gives us advance our understanding of Great Lakes processes on short-term, seasonal, and annual timescales — and lay a foundation for observing changes in the lakes over several decades.

This map shows NOAA GLERL/CIGLR underwater glider pathways in southern Lake Michigan, available on NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Underwater Glider Data Assembly Center map.  A long-term series of Lake Michigan observations in the southern basin of Lake Michigan began in 2012, criss-crossing between Muskegon, Milwaukee. This complements data collected by the NOAA National Data Center Station 45007, as well as temperature string in the southern basin of the lake,  connecting the observations of NOAA GLERL and University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Glider paths shown on the maps include all deployment from 2012-2019. These paths expand observations collected by Federal and University research vessels in the same regions of the Great Lakes, through the use of other tools, such as NOAA GLERL’s Plankton Survey System (PSS) and Multiple Opening and Closing Net and Environmental Sampling System (MOCNESS). It is important to have a long period of observations from many types of collection across the lakes to better understand how things like water temperature at different depths, inputs from rivers, and seasonal changes to other characteristics of the water affect the ecosystem.This information is useful in understanding the impacts of invasive species, harmful algal blooms, and our changing climate.

This map shows NOAA GLERL/CIGLR underwater glider pathways in the Great Lakes, available on NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Underwater Glider Data Assembly Center map. In 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2018, glider deployments were chosen to complement ship- and glider-based observations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NOAA, United States Geological Survey (USGS), and Coordinated Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI) in Lakes Michigan, Ontario and Huron.  Lake Erie is too shallow for effective use of this glider, and Lake Superior has been monitored by EPA and University of Minnesota Large Lakes Observatory gliders.

Future deployments and collaboration

Planning is currently underway for future missions in the Great Lakes and potential applications for the glider’s wide variety of data. The glider will also be used this year on Lake Michigan for research and observations during the 2020 Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI), a binational effort to coordinate science and monitoring activities in one of the five Great Lakes each year. This year’s CSMI research will likely use the glider to gain a better understanding of water quality in the lake’s nearshore regions – the area in the water from where waves begin to break, up to the lowest water point on the beach. With great partners like CIGLR and GLOS, the future is bright for NOAA’s underwater glider explorations.