NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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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.


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Sinkhole Science: Groundwater in the Great Lakes

If you followed our fieldwork last summer, you probably remember hearing about our research on the fascinating sinkholes and microbial communities that lie at the bottom of northern Lake Huron off the coast of Alpena, MI. Now you can experience this research as a short film!

NOAA GLERL has partnered with Great Lakes Outreach Media to create a short film entitled Sinkhole Science: Groundwater in the Great Lakes. It was recently featured on Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Now program as well as the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s International Film Festival. 

In the film, you’ll learn how NOAA GLERL’s Observation Systems and Advanced Technology (OSAT) branch studies how these sinkholes impact the water levels and ecosystems of the Great Lakes. GLERL’s OSAT Program Leader Steve Ruberg explains the high-tech gadgets involved in this research, including a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), a tilt-based current sensor, and temperature strings to determine vertical movement of groundwater entering the lakes through the sinkholes.

Hit “play” to dive into the exciting world of GLERL’s sinkhole science!

Researchers from NOAA GLERL’s Observation Systems and Advanced Technology team set out on the R/V Storm to study sinkholes on the floor of northern Lake Huron off the coast of Alpena, MI. Photo: Great Lakes Outreach Media
Researchers on NOAA GLERL’s R/V Storm deploy a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to observe sinkholes at the bottom of Lake Huron off the coast of Alpena, MI. Photo: Great Lakes Outreach Media
NOAA GLERL’s OSAT Program Lead Steve Ruberg and Instrument Specialist Steven Constant observe a sinkhole via live video feed from the ROV. Photo: Great Lakes Outreach Media
NOAA GLERL Marine Engineer Kyle Beadle controls the ROV in order to observe sinkholes from the R/V Storm. Photo: Great Lakes Outreach Media
NOAA GLERL Instrument Specialist Steven Constant and Vessel Captain Travis Smith monitor the ROV as it dives beneath the surface to observe a sinkhole. Photo: Great Lakes Outreach Media


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Millions of Microbes: The Unexpected Inhabitants of Lake Huron’s Underwater Sinkholes

When most people think of sinkholes, a massive cavity in the ground opening up and swallowing a car is what usually comes to mind. But when scientists at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) hear “sinkholes,” their minds jump to an unusual place — the bottom of a Great Lake.

Aerial view of research boat on green water
Researchers on GLERL’s R/V Storm study sinkholes in northern Lake Huron off the coast of Alpena, Michigan. (Credit: David J Ruck/Great Lakes Outreach Media)

Thousands of years ago, off the coast of Alpena, Michigan, patches of ground beneath Lake Huron collapsed to form a series of underwater sinkholes — some measuring hundreds of feet across and up to 60 feet deep. You may have read this NOAA.gov article about how these sinkholes are contributing water to Lake Huron, but did you know they also support a huge kingdom of microorganisms?

Microbes might be tiny, but they’re one of the biggest research topics in the Great Lakes. They thrive near the sinkholes because the groundwater seeping in has the perfect chemistry for their survival: low oxygen levels and lots of chloride and sulfate, which come from the dissolved limestone underlying the lake. These factors make the sinkholes inhospitable for fish and other wildlife normally found in the Great Lakes, which means these microbes have a much easier time surviving there than other creatures. With perfect living conditions and little competition, they’re so abundant that they form purple, green, and white microbial mats that cover the lake floor like a colorful carpet.

Floor of Lake Huron covered by purple and white microbial mats with bubbles in them.
Purple microbial mats in the Middle Island Sinkhole in Lake Huron, June 2019. Small hills and “fingers” like this one in the mats are caused by gases like methane and hydrogen sulfide bubbling up beneath them. (Credit: Phil Hartmeyer, NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

Scientists at GLERL are collaborating with partners from the University of Michigan and Grand Valley State University to see just what these microscopic lake dwellers can teach us. This video by Great Lakes Outreach Media highlights how they can even give us a deeper insight into the history of Earth itself.

Associate Professor Greg Dick from the University of Michigan discusses cyanobacteria’s important role in Earth science. This clip is from Great Lakes Outreach Media’s upcoming documentary, “The Erie Situation.”

Some sinkholes are so deep that sunlight can’t reach them, but that doesn’t stop some microbes from calling them home. They’re able to live their entire lives in complete darkness, because they get their energy from the added minerals in the water rather than from sunlight — a process called chemosynthesis. But whether they need sunlight or not, several of the microbial species present have proven to be full of surprises.

“In the near-shore systems, the cyanobacteria we found have DNA signatures that come closest to comparing to the cyanobacteria found at the bottom of a lake in Antarctica. So that’s a strange coincidence,” said Steve Ruberg, the scientist in charge of sinkhole research at GLERL. “Some of the other bacteria we’ve found in the deeper systems have only been found off the coast of Africa.”

Fish sitting on a rock, which is covered by purple and white microbes
A burbot resting on rocks covered in purple and white microbial mats inside the Middle Island sinkhole in Lake Huron. (Credit: Phil Hartmeyer, NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

The particular sinkholes we’re studying are located within NOAA’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, an area of Lake Huron that’s federally protected for the purpose of preserving nearly 200 shipwrecks. In fact, the only reason we know about these sinkholes is because they were discovered by accident only 18 years ago, on a research cruise documenting the shipwrecks.

Close up of rocks covered in  purple, white and green microbes on the bottom of Lake Huron, with a diver in the background.
A diver observes the purple, white and green microbes covering rocks in Lake Huron’s Middle Island Sinkhole (Credit: Phil Hartmeyer, NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

So why did this microbial paradise come into existence in the first place? The story goes back much further than the sinkholes’ discovery in 2001. About 400 million years ago, before the Great Lakes even existed, a layer of limestone bedrock formed beneath what is now Lake Huron. Then around 10,000 years ago, underground caves were created when a chemical reaction between the limestone and acidic groundwater dissolved away holes in the bedrock. All that was left were weakly supported “ceilings” that eventually collapsed into the sinkholes we — and the microbes — know and love today.

Close up of rocks covered in purple, white and green microbes on the floor of Lake Huron
Purple cyanobacteria and white chemosynthetic mats on the floor of Lake Huron with Lowell Instruments current meter. (Credit: Phil Hartmeyer, NOAA Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary)

Since Lakes Michigan and Erie have the same limestone bedrock as Lake Huron, GLERL scientists think these lakes could be home to more of these fascinating underwater features. So while the excitement of this fieldwork has died down for the year, our research on Great Lakes sinkholes and their tiny inhabitants is far from over.


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Exploring the diversity of native species with Great Lakes Water Life

From prehistoric-looking lake sturgeon to colorful crayfish, the Great Lakes are alive with thousands of remarkable native species. To document and celebrate the diversity of fauna native to the Great Lakes, NOAA-GLERL has partnered with US EPA and the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network to launch the new Great Lakes Water Life database: a comprehensive, accessible inventory of aquatic species found throughout the region.

Three researchers aboard a boat hold up a large lake sturgeon that is as long as they are tall.
Researchers hold a lake sturgeon, one of the many species native to the Great Lakes (photo courtesy of Todd Marsee, Michigan Sea Grant).

Great Lakes Water Life (GLWL) is designed to support environmental researchers and managers by hosting a broad range of ecological information and tools: identification guides for native species, records of rare or unfamiliar taxa, lists of expected species in a specific area, summaries of broad-scale biodiversity patterns, and more. This site is also available for public use to students, citizen scientists, and other Great Lakes residents who want to learn about native species in their area, providing new opportunities for outreach and education online.

“This user-friendly database captures the unique biological diversity of the Laurentian Great Lakes,” said Debbie Lee, Director of the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.  “The search function invites the curious to learn about the amazing water life native to the largest surface freshwater system on earth.”

A screenshot of the Great Lakes Water Life home page, featuring an about section, a search tool, additional resources, and a contribution portal.
The new Great Lakes Water Life landing page.

GLWL allows users to search for species by taxa, origin, domain, and broad geographic location. Each species result links to taxonomic information, a bibliography of references and sighting information, links into Barcode of Life DNA markers, and more. The database also includes links to other taxonomic keys and field guides to native species, information about the purpose and history of this project, and a user contribution portal where researchers can share new photos, sightings, and collection records to be added to the site.

A screenshot of the Great Lakes Water Life search results, showing several species of native fish.
Users can search for native species to learn more about taxonomic information, geographic location, DNA markers, and more.

This database builds on a previous project known as the “Great Lakes Waterlife Gallery,” originally created in 2002 in support of Sea Grant’s Great Lakes Fisheries Leadership Institute in partnership by NOAA-GLERL and the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network. 

Another NOAA-led regional database, the Great Lakes Nonindigenous Species Information System (GLANSIS), runs in parallel with GLWL to more comprehensively document the non-native aquatic species that have been introduced to the Great Lakes. Cross-linking the two systems helps GLANSIS to provide DNA information on non-native species and identify species that may be expanding their ranges, highlighting the value of the native species inventory to monitoring for and understanding the impact of aquatic invaders. Great Lakes invaders shouldn’t get all the press coverage, however — researchers hope that the Great Lakes Water Life database will help fellow scientists make informed management decisions and help the public get to know more about the unique native creatures that inhabit the Great Lakes.

To learn more about the Great Lakes Water Life database or contribute information, please visit the site or contact Rochelle.Sturtevant@noaa.gov.


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Special Two-Day Science Translation Session at IAGLR 2019

This June, fellow researchers from around the world will gather in Brockport, New York, on the shores of the Erie Canal for IAGLR’s 62nd annual Conference on Great Lakes ResearchHosted by The College at Brockport, State University of New York, the conference will feature four days of scientific sessions and speakers focusing on the theme Large Lakes Research: Connecting People and Ideas. Mark your calendars for June 10-14, 2019. You won’t want to miss it! 

During the conference there will be a special two-day session that highlights the importance of science translation.  The session, Beyond Peer Review: Why You Must Connect Your Science to Stakeholders (and how to do it), will consist of several components—17 formal presentations, a moderated panel discussion, a synthesis discussion with Q&A, as well as a Skills Café. Conference attendees are welcome to join us for any and all portions of this session. We hope to see you there!


Day 1 – Tuesday, June 11th

On Tuesday, the SciComm session will include 12 presentations and a panel moderated discussion with science communication thought leaders Peter Annin (Author), Andrea Densham (Shedd), Sandra Svoboda (DPTV) & TJ Pignataro (Buffalo News). The panelists will explore what they see happening now and what they think the future looks like for connecting people and ideas for large lakes research.

Tuesday Morning (Edwards Hall Room 103)

Tuesday Afternoon (Edwards Hall Room 103)

  • 1:40-3:20 pm – 5 presentations
  • 3:20-3:40 pm – Break
  • 3:40-5:20 pm – 4 presentations

Day 2 – Wednesday,  June 12th

On Wednesday, the SciComm session will continue with 5 formal presentations, and a synthesis discussion in the morning and a Skills Café in the afternoon.

Wednesday Morning (Edwards Hall Room 103)

  • 8:00-9:20 am – 3 presentations
  • 9:20-9:40 am – Break
  • 9:40-10:20 am – 2 presentations
  • 10:20-11:00 am – Interactive Synthesis Discussion and Question & Answer Session with Peter Annin (Author), Andrea Densham (Shedd), Sandra Svoboda (DPTV) & TJ Pignataro (Buffalo News)

Wednesday Afternoon (Edwards Hall Room 102)

  • 1:40 – 5:00 pm – Skills Café  –  This series of short interactive workshops will allow participants to practice a variety of skills that will make them more effective at communicating the “so what” of their research to lay – but key – audiences. 

The Panel: Hear the latest from science communication thought leaders!

Peter Annin, Author and Director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation

Peter Annin is the director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation and the author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, the definitive work on the Great Lakes water diversion controversy. Before coming to Northland College in 2015, Peter served as a reporter at Newsweek, the associate director of the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, and the managing director of the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative. He continues to report on the Great Lakes water diversion issue and has published a second edition of The Great Lakes Water Wars. 

Andrea Densham, Senior Director of Conservation and Advocacy at the Shedd Aquarium

Andrea Densham joined Shedd Aquarium in 2017 to lead the newly launched Conservation Policy and Advocacy team. Created to enhance Shedd’s position as a policy expert, Densham’s team develops and implements the institution’s policy goals. A government affairs thought leader and advisor, she brings more than 20 years of experience in not-for-profit management, strategic planning, research, and public policy and advocacy.

 

TJ Pignataro, Environmental Reporter for the Buffalo News

T.J. Pignataro has been a staff reporter for The Buffalo News for more than 20 years and the environment and weather reporter since 2013. He holds a juris doctor degree from SUNY Buffalo Law School and is completing his Certificate in Weather Forecasting this spring from the Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science. TJ uses Twitter to convey Great Lakes environmental news, weather emergencies and Great Lakes science in plain language. 

Sandra Svoboda, Program Director, Great Lakes Now, Detroit Public Television

A nine-month stint with The Associated Press brought Sandra to Detroit … 29 years ago. She earned a bachelor’s in journalism from Indiana University and holds two master’s degrees from Wayne State, one in public administration and one in library and information science. The Special Libraries Association IT Division recognized her research with its 2018 Joe Ann Clifton Student Award for her paper on how Detroit voting dynamics can inform citizen engagement strategies. Sandra has worked for The (Toledo) Blade covering education/children’s issues, Detroit’s Metro Times and FEMA, where she deployed to Louisiana to help coordinate/communicate about community rebuilding/planning efforts for/after disasters. Sandra has won awards for broadcast, print, digital and community engagement work from the Michigan Associated Press, the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, State Bar of Michigan, Michigan Press Association and Society of Professional Journalists-Detroit chapter, and Wayne State’s public administration program recognized her with the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2015 for her work covering Detroit’s bankruptcy. She has taught communications, writing, public policy, and political science at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. As the Great Lakes region has always been her home Sandra has traveled between Minnesota and Tadoussac, Quebec, both on the water and on land. A competitive sailor, she races hundreds of miles each season on the Great Lakes, and once threw out a pitch at a Detroit Tigers game as recognition of her win with her team at the U.S. Women’s Match Racing Championship. She’s also eaten Asian carp as part of her coverage of invasive species.


The Skills Café: Get help communicating your research!

WHO: Do people’s eyes glaze over when you begin to talk about your research? Do you believe your research has the ability to make a difference, but you’re not sure how to get others excited about it too? Then this session is for you! For the researcher looking to improve their accessibility in attaining broader impacts; the early career professional seeking tips on how to set theirselves apart in a competitive market; the passionate scientist looking for ways to ensure their work makes an impact . . . the Skills Cafe is your opportunity to grow and try new things in a fun and supportive setting.

WHAT: This series of short interactive workshops will allow participants to practice a variety of skills that will make them more effective at communicating the “so what” of their research to lay—but key—audiences. Get tips on interacting with the media, hone your speaking skills, get feedback from a mock interview, and learn from the trials and tribulations of your peers!

WHEN: 1:40-5:00 pm on Wednesday, June 12.

WHERE: Edwards Hall, Room 102

For more information and a detailed schedule of activities stop by the NOAA exhibitor booth.


About IAGLR 2019: The 2019 International Association for Great Lakes Research Conference is hosted by The College at Brockport, State University of New York, June 10-14, 2019. The conference will feature four days of scientific sessions and speakers focusing on the theme “Large Lakes Research: Connecting People and Ideas.”

photo of building in water with skyline of city in backgroun


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NOAA and partners team up to prevent future Great Lakes drinking water crisis

A new video SMART BUOYS: Preventing a Great Lakes Drinking Water Crisis released by Ocean Conservancy describes how NOAA forecast models provide advance warnings to Lake Erie drinking water plant managers to avoid shutdowns due to poor water quality.

An inter-agency team of public and private sector partners, working with the Cleveland Water Department, are addressing drinking water safety for oxygen depleted waters (hypoxia). By leveraging NOAA’s operational National Weather Service and National Ocean Service forecast models and remote sensing for the Great Lakes, NOAA’s latest experimental forecast models developed by its Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory can predict when water affected by harmful algal blooms and hypoxia may be in the vicinity of drinking water intake pipes. Advance notice of these conditions allows water managers to change their treatment strategies to ensure the health and safety of drinking water.  

“Hypoxia occurs when a lot of organic material accumulates at the bottom of the lake and decomposes. As it decomposes, it sucks oxygen from the water, can discolor the water and allow for metals to concentrate,” explains Devin Gill, stakeholder engagement specialist for NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, hosted at the University of Michigan.

Low dissolved oxygen on its own is not a problem for water treatment. However, low oxygen is often associated with a high level of manganese and iron in the bottom water that then leads to drinking water color, taste, and odor problems. In addition, the same processes that consume oxygen also lower pH and, if not corrected, could cause corrosion in the distribution system, potentially elevating lead and copper in treated water.

“Periodically, this water with depleted oxygen gets pushed up against the shoreline and the drinking water intakes pipes,” said Craig Stow, senior research scientist for NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. “We have buoys stationed at various places and those guide our models to let us know when conditions are right for upwellings that would move this hypoxic water into the vicinity of the drinking water intakes.”

NOAA provides advanced warning of these events so that drinking water plant managers can effectively change their treatment strategies to address the water quality, which is a huge benefit in the water treatment industry.


For more information on NOAA GLERL’s harmful algal blooms and hypoxia research, visit www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/HABs_and_Hypoxia.

map of great lakes showing colors of model output


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Improving lake effect snow forecasts by making models talk to each other

If you live in the Great Lakes basin and have been on or even near a road recently, you might be feeling unreasonably ragey at the mere mention of lake effect snow. We get it. But bear with us, because we’re doing some cool science we’d like to tell you about. It may even make your commute easier someday, or at least more predictable.

GLERL scientists are working with researchers at the University of Michigan’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), the National Weather Service, and NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory (ESRL) to make lake effect snow forecasts in the Great Lakes better.

NOAA’s high resolution rapid refresh (HRRR) model is the most commonly used weather model for predicting lake effect snow. An experimental version runs on a beastly high-performance computer at ESRL in Colorado, and predicts a whole list of atmospheric variables (including snowfall) every 15 minutes. The model relies on water surface temperature data, collected via satellite, to make its predictions. It’s important to give the model accurate water surface temperatures to estimate evaporation across the Great Lakes, since it is the main driver of lake effect snow.

Unfortunately, satellite temperature data has limitations. If clouds keep satellites from measuring the temperature at a specific location, the weather model will just use the most recent measurement it has. Since it’s especially cloudy in the Great Lakes during the lake effect snow season (late fall and early winter), that data could be days old. Because lake temperatures are changing quite rapidly this time of year, days-old data just doesn’t cut it.

As it turns out, GLERL already has a model that predicts Great Lakes surface temperature pretty well. The Great Lakes Operational Forecast System (GLOFS) spits out lake surface temperatures every hour. If we tell the weather model to use GLOFS output instead of satellite data, it has the potential to do a far better job of forecasting lake effect snow.

Linking two models like this is called “coupling”. GLOFS actually already uses input from HRRR—wind, air temperature, pressure, clouds and humidity data all inform GLOFS’ predictions. We’re just coupling the models in both directions. HRRR will send its output to GLOFS, GLOFS will “talk back” with its own predictions of water surface temperature (and ice cover), and HRRR will produce a (hopefully) more informed prediction of lake effect snow.

Initial results are promising. We used the coupled models to do a ‘hindcast’ (a forecast for the past) to predict lake effect snow for a major event over Lake Erie in November of 2014. They did a significantly better job than without coupling. The figure below shows the difference.

The coupled models improved cumulative snow water equivalent forecasts. Red shows where the model increased snowfall.

You’ll notice a band of blue on the southeastern edge of Lake Erie, indicating that the coupled models predicted less lake effect snow in that area. There’s a band of orange directly to the north of it, where the coupled models predicted more lake effect snow. What you’re seeing is the coupled model predicting the same band of snow, but further north, closer to where it actually fell.

That storm slammed the city of Buffalo, New York, killing 13 people. Better lake effect snow predictions have the potential to save lives.

GLERL and partners will be doing further testing this winter, and if it works out, the model coupling will be carried over in research-to-operations transitions.