NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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Update on Lake Erie hypoxia forecasting stakeholder workshop (May 23, 2017)

Researchers partner with drinking water plant managers to forecast hypoxia in Lake Erie

By Devin Gill, Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research and Kristin Schrader, Great Lakes Observation Systems

Lake Erie’s “dead zone” not only impacts the lake’s ecosystem, but also poses challenges for managers of drinking water treatment facilities. The Lake Erie dead zone is a region of the central basin where oxygen levels within the water become extremely low, creating a condition known as hypoxia. Great Lakes researchers are sharing their scientific expertise to help managers be fully prepared for threats to drinking water resulting from hypoxic conditions.

Scientists from NOAA GLERL, Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) and the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) met on May 23 in Cleveland, Ohio with water plant managers from the southern shore of Lake Erie for a stakeholder engagement workshop to discuss the hypoxia issue. An important focus of the workshop was the development of a new hypoxia forecast model that will act as an early warning system when hypoxic water has the potential to enter intakes of water treatment facilities. The depletion of oxygen in hypoxic water occurs when the water column stratifies (separates into warm and cold layers that don’t mix). Oxygen in the lower, cold layer becomes depleted from the lack of mixing with the upper (warm) layer that is exposed to air, as well as from the decomposition of organic matter (dead plants and animals) in the lower layer. The process of hypoxia is illustrated by GLERL’s infographic, The Story of Hypoxia.

Stakeholders who attended the workshop explained that water treatment operators must be prepared to respond quickly during a hypoxic event to ensure that drinking water quality standards are met. Hypoxic water often is associated with low pH and elevated manganese and iron. Manganese can cause discoloration of treated water, while low pH may require adjustment to avoid corrosion of water distribution pipes, which can introduce lead and copper into the water.

At the workshop, researchers shared information on lake processes that contribute to hypoxia and on development of the Lake Erie Operational Forecasting System that provides nowcasts and forecasting guidance of water levels, currents, and water temperature out to 120 hours, and is updated 4 times a day. Information was also shared on preliminary hypoxia modeling results that simulated an upwelling event (wind-driven motion in the Great Lakes, pushing cooler water towards the lake surface, replacing the warmer surface water) that brought hypoxic water to several water plant intakes in September, 2016. Water plant managers reported that advance notice of a potential upwelling event that could bring hypoxic water to their intakes would be useful to alert staff and potentially increase the frequency of testing for manganese.

Dr. Mark Rowe from University of Michigan, CIGLR, researcher and co-lead on this initiative, comments on the value of this hypoxia stakeholder engagement workshop: “At both NOAA and the University of Michigan, there is an increasing focus on co-design of research, which refers to involving the end-users of research results throughout the entire project, from concept to conclusion. If we succeed, a new forecast model will be developed that will be run by the operational branch of NOAA. This can only happen if there is a group of users who request it. This workshop provided critical information to the researchers regarding the needs of the water plants, while also informing water plant managers on how forecast models could potentially help them plan their operations, and on the latest scientific understanding of hypoxia in Lake Erie. ”

Stakeholder Scott Moegling, Water Quality Manager at City of Cleveland Division of Water, also recognizes the value of  engagement between the stakeholders and the Great Lakes researchers. Moegling points out that “the drinking water plant managers not only benefit from sharing of operational information and research, but also by establishing lines of communication between water utilities and researchers that help identify common areas of interest. The end result—researchers providing products that can be immediately used by water utilities—is of obvious interest to the water treatment industry on Lake Erie.”  Moegling also views the GLERL/CIGLR research on the hypoxia forecast model as holding great potential in predicting hypoxic conditions in Lake Erie and believes that once the model is developed and calibrated, there may be a number of other possibilities for highly useful applications.

In addition to sharing the latest research on hypoxia, the stakeholder engagement workshop provided a forum for water plant managers to share information with each other on how to recognize hypoxic events and efficiently adjust water treatment processes. Researchers at CIGLR and NOAA GLERL are committed to conduct research that serves society, and will continue to work with this stakeholder group over the course of the five-year project to develop a hypoxia forecast model that meets their needs.

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“Just Because the Blooms in Lake Erie Slow Down, Doesn’t Mean We Do”

NOAA GLERL harmful algal blooms research program featured on Detroit Public Television

As part of a series on The Blue Economy of the Great Lakes, NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) is featured in a short video, produced by Detroit Public Television (DPTV) and published on the DPTV website. The video, which features GLERL and its partners from the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR, known formerly as CILER), describes the advanced technology GLERL uses to monitor, track, predict, and understand harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Great Lakes. More specifically, the video focuses on efforts in Lake Erie, where over 400,000 people were affected by a 3-day shutdown of the Toledo drinking water treatment facility in 2014. Since then, GLERL and CIGLR have enhanced their HABs research program—much of which is made possible by funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI—to include cutting-edge technologies such as the hyperspectral sensors and an Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), as well as experimental forecasting tools like the Lake Erie HAB Tracker.

In addition to online coverage, the video will be broadcast via DPTV at a future time, yet to be determined.

View the video above, or visit http://bit.ly/2pK2g0J.


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Using Airplanes for Algal Bloom Prediction in Lake Erie

How can airplanes help predict harmful algal blooms (HABs)?

For several years the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been using satellites to guide HAB forecasts. But, satellites have their limitations. For example, the Great Lakes region can be cloudy and satellite “cameras” can’t see through clouds. In western Lake Erie there are typically only about 20-30 usable cloud-free images during the HAB season, which limits our ability to make bloom predictions. Another challenge with satellites is that the resolution of images makes it difficult for scientists to “see” differences in the types of algae floating on the Lake Erie surface. After a big rainstorm, for instance, it is difficult to distinguish between muddy water flowing in from the Maumee River and algae that is already in the western basin.

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The resolution of satellite images makes it difficult to distinguish the types of algae floating on the surface of the water. We can detect different algae in the lake because each algae group (shown above) releases a different color pigment that we can ‘see’/ measure from the hyperspectral sensor.

To improve HABs forecasts, during the past two summers,  GLERL has been partnering with the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER) and Skypics to use a special hyperspectral sensor on an airplane-mounted camera. This weekly airborne campaign is coordinated with the weekly Lake Erie monitoring program. The monitoring program collects samples at multiple stations around western Lake Erie and the hyperspectral sensor captures images from those sampling stations on the same day. Comparing the field collected samples with what the sensor “sees” helps us to understand how well the sensor is working for HAB detection. Additionally, we coordinate with researchers at NASA’s Cleveland office, who are also flying their own airborne imaging sensor, to cross check our results with theirs for even more robust hyperspectral data validation and quality control.


Check out this short video clip of a HAB, taken by pilot, Zach Haslick, from Skypics, as seen from the window of his airplane, while flying the hyperspectral sensor over an area of Lake Erie.

Like satellites, hyperspectral sensors collect information on HAB location and size, but since our weekly hyperspectral flyovers are done below the clouds, the images are much higher resolution compared to satellites. Because of this, the hyperspectral sensors provide more accurate and detailed information on bloom concentration, extent, and even the types of algae present in the lake.

Hyperspectral sensors measure wavelengths, or color bands, released from chlorophyll color pigments in the HAB to detect color pigments that represent different types of algal groups. The process is similar to how the human eye detects wavelengths to create images but the hyperspectral sensor detects bands of wavelengths, or colors, at greater frequencies than what the human eye, or even satellites, can detect. The pigment detection information helps us determine what type of algae is present within blooms and whether or not toxins are present. In the long run, this will help us develop even more accurate HAB forecasts.

Success! This year the hyperspectral sensor detected a bloom that was not detected by a satellite!

On September 19, the hyperspectral flyover captured a HAB scum near a drinking water intake in Lake Erie that wasn’t visible from the satellite. Using the hyperspectral images, along with our HAB Tracker forecast tool to assess the potential of the scum to mix down into the lake (see images below), we were able to provide the drinking water intake manager with an early warning of a potential HAB moving near the intake.

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Hyperspectral sensing imagers offer drinking water intake managers a key resource for identifying the type and location of algal blooms near water intake systems, as was demonstrated on September 19. Now that the field season is over we have begun pouring over our data and will incorporate what we learned to improve our HAB Tracker forecast tool and, ultimately, provide better information to decision makers.

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GLERL scientists are also teaming up with other partners to test a variety of ways in which hyperspectral sensors can be useful in detecting HABs. In addition to the manned airplane studies, recently, along with a team from NASA Glenn Research Center and Sinclair Community College, researchers flew a UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) with a hyperspectral sensor over the lower Maumee River/Maumee Bay area in Lake Erie (see the photo gallery above). Concurrently, researchers from the University of Toledo collected water samples for comparison. Not only useful for tracking HABs, this also demonstrates the successful use of a UAS for other types of environmental monitoring.

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Analyzing Algal Toxins in Near Real-Time

This morning, along side our partners at the University of Michigan’s Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER), we deployed the very first Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) in a freshwater system.

An ESP is an autonomous robotic instrument that works as a ‘lab in a can’ in aquatic environments to collect water samples and analyze them for algal toxins. This allows for near real-time (only a couple of hours for remote analyzation as opposed to a day or more back at the lab) detection of harmful algal blooms (HABs) and their toxins. GLERL’s ESP—named the ESPniagara—will measure concentrations of Microcystin, the dominant algal toxin in the Great Lakes. It will also archive samples, allowing us to genetically detect Microcystis, the predominant HAB in the Great Lakes, back in the laboratory.

There are 17 ESPs throughout the world and the ESPniagara is the only one (so far) being used in freshwater. We’ve placed it near the Toledo drinking water intake in western Lake Erie to collect and analyze water and detect concentrations of toxins that may be a health risk to people swimming, boating or drinking Lake Erie water. We’ll post the data from the on our HABs and Hypoxia webpage  so that drinking water managers and other end users can make water quality/ public health decisions.

The goal of this research is to provide drinking water managers with data on algal toxicity before the water reaches municipal water intakes. ESPniagara will strengthen our ability to both detect and provide warning of potential human health impacts from toxins.

This research proves to be a great collaborative effort for GLERL, CILER, and our partners. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) first developed the ESP, which is now commercially manufactured by McLane Laboratories. GLERL purchased the ESPniagara with funding from EPA-Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. NOAA-National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) developed the technology to detect Microcystins (an ELISA assay). NCCOS funding also supported previous work to demonstrate the viability of ESP technology to assist in monitoring and forecasting of HABs and their related toxins in the marine environment.

We plan to have the ESPniagara out in western Lake Erie for the next 30 days. Check back later this week and next for a few videos, photos, and some pretty cool data. For more information, check out our HABs and Hypoxia website and read up on the ESP.