NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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


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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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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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“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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