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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The HAB season is over, but the work goes on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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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.

 


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Sounds of the storm and coral reef recovery following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico

By Dr. Doran Mason (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory) and Felix Martinez (National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science)

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University of Puerto Rico grad students servicing a hydrophone at the Weinberg site at La Parguera Natural Reserve on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico.  Photo Credit:  Rebecca Becicka, Ph.D. student at University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez

Researchers at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) are exploring the use of sound to monitor and assess the health of coastal ecosystems, most recently focusing on the soundscape created by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico. In collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, Purdue University (a partner university in the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research consortium), and the National Centers for Coastal Science (NCCOS), GLERL has launched a pilot study on developing the long-term use of soundscape. To implement this new approach to monitoring, hydrophones, an instrument in measuring sound, are used to track the response of ecosystems to natural (e.g., tropical storms) and human-induced (e.g., stressors such as excess nutrients, sedimentation, fishing pressure, climate change) disturbances.

In this pilot project, hydrophones have been in place for six months at three sites (see below for Google Earth Map of Magueyes Island, La Parguera, Puerto Rico) at La Parguera Natural Reserve on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico prior to and during the two category 4 hurricanes that pummeled the island. Miraculously, the recorders and data survived the storms and were recovered, providing us with a unique opportunity to listen to the hurricanes and to evaluate how quickly reefs recover from a natural disaster.  

What is a soundscape?  Soundscapes are created by the aggregation of sounds produced by living organisms (invertebrates, fish, marine mammals), non-biological natural sounds (waves, rain, movement of the earth), and sounds produced by humans (boats, coastal roads). Changes in the biological portion of soundscape can provide us with the quantitative data to assess the health of the ecosystem in response to natural and human-induced disturbance.  Thus, our overall goal is to develop quantitative indices of coastal ecosystem health, based on the soundscape to assess the state of the environment, and to understand and predict changes, with application towards ecosystem restoration and conservation efforts. The utility of this approach is the use of a low-cost, remote autonomous technology that holds potential in expanding NOAA’s long-term observational capacity to monitor and assess coastal habitats.

Why GLERL?  As part of a long history of monitoring and research in the Great Lakes, GLERL scientists have cultivated a unique expertise in the development of autonomous remote sensing technology. In the last two decades, Purdue University (a CIGLR partner) has been one of the leaders in the development of terrestrial soundscapes as a critical tool to monitor ecosystem change. More recently, interest has grown in expanding this approach into the aquatic realm.  Building on our relationship with Purdue, GLERL and partners are well positioned to advance use of soundscape ecology to meet NOAA’s mission to protect, restore, and manage the use of coastal and ocean resources. In addition to the pilot study, GLERL is partnering with NCCOS to reach out to other NOAA Line Office programs in efforts to formalize the use of soundscapes within NOAA as a scientific program.  For example, efforts are underway to plan an international workshop to establish the foundational principles and identify research and technology gaps for the use of soundscape ecology.

Why Puerto Rico? Original support for this pilot study came from a congressional allocation for enhancing relationships with the cooperative institutes for the benefit of coral reef restoration and conservation. Given the scientific knowledge accrued from NCCOS’ prior investments in La Parguera, GLERL and its NCCOS partner recognized that Puerto Rico would be a prime location to test and develop the use of soundscapes technology to track and quantify the health of coastal ecosystems.

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Google Earth Map of Magueyes Island, La Parguera, Puerto Rico showing coral reef locations where the hydrophones were deployed at different depths: Weinberg (shelf-edge) – 75′; Media Luna (mid-shelf) – 45′; Pelotas (inner-shelf) – 35′.  Provided by: Prof. Richard Appeldoorn, University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez

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Colleagues from Purdue University and University of Puerto Rico deploy Media Luna reef site hydrophone for the first time.  Photo credit: Steve Ruberg, NOAA GLERL

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View of La Parguera from Media Luna reef site. Photo credit: Steve Ruberg, NOAA GLERL


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New algorithm to map Great Lakes ice cover

Leshkvich sampling ice

GLERL researcher, George Leshkevich, drilling through the ice in Green Bay, Lake Michigan.

NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) is on the cutting edge of using satellite remote sensing to monitor different types of ice as well as the ice cover extent. To make this possible, an algorithm—a mathematical calculation developed at GLERL to retrieve major Great Lakes ice types from satellite synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data—has been transferred to NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) for evaluation for operational implementation.

Once operational, the algorithm for Great Lakes ice cover mapping holds multiple applications that will advance marine resource management, lake fisheries and ecosystem studies, Great Lakes climatology, and ice cover information distribution (winter navigation).  Anticipated users of the ice mapping results include the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), U.S. National Ice Center (NIC), and the National Weather Service (NWS).

For satellite retrieval of key parameters (translation of satellite imagery into information on ice types and extent), it is necessary to develop algorithms specific to the Great Lakes owing to several factors:

  • Ocean algorithms often do not work well in time or space on the Great Lakes
  • Ocean algorithms often are not tuned to the parameters needed by Great Lakes stakeholders (e.g. ice types)
  • Vast difference exists in resolution and spatial coverage needs
  • Physical properties of freshwater differ from those of saltwater

The relatively high spatial and temporal resolution (level of detail) of SAR measurements, with its all-weather, day/night sensing capabilities, make it well-suited to map and monitor Great Lakes ice cover for operational activities. Using GLERL and Jet Propulsion Lab’s (JPL) measured library of calibrated polarimetric C-band SAR ice backscatter signatures, an algorithm was developed to classify and map major Great Lakes ice types using satellite C-band SAR data (see graphic below, Methodology for Great Lakes Ice Classification prototype).

ICECON (ice condition index) for the Great Lakes—a risk assessment tool recently developed for the Coast Guard—incorporates several physical factors including temperature, wind speed and direction, currents, ice type, ice thickness, and snow to determine 6 categories of ice severity for icebreaking operations and ship transit.  To support the ICECON ice severity index, the SAR ice type classification algorithm was modified to output ice types or groups of ice types, such as brash ice and pancake ice to adhere to and visualize the U.S. Coast Guards 6 ICECON categories. Ranges of ice thickness were assigned to each ice type category based on published freshwater ice nomenclature and extensive field data collection. GLERL plans to perform a demonstration/evaluation of the ICECON tool for the Coast Guard this winter.

Mapping and monitoring Great Lakes ice cover advances NOAA’s goals for a Weather-Ready Nation and Resilient Coastal Communities and Economies, and Safe Navigation. Results from this project, conducted in collaboration with Son V. Nghiem (NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory), will be made available to the user community via the NOAA Great Lakes CoastWatch website (https://coastwatch.glerl.noaa.gov).

 

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ICECON Scale

Measuring different ice types on Green Bay used to validate the ICECON (ice type classification) Scale in a RADARSAT-2 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) scene taken on February 26, 2017.