NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

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

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NOAA GLERL collaborating with partners to monitor the Lake Huron ecosystem

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The NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) is participating in an international, multi-agency effort to study invasive species, water quality, fisheries, and climate change in Lake Huron this field season—pursuing key knowledge gaps in the ecosystem. The Coordinated Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI) coordinates across U.S. and Canadian agencies to conduct intensive sampling in one Great Lake per year, on a five-year cycle. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which is administered by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is funding this research.

“While GLERL has had a long-term research program focused on Lake Michigan, we are using this initiative to advance long-term research on Lake Huron,” said GLERL Director Deborah Lee. “Invasive species, warming temperatures, and changes in nutrient loading are putting as much stress on Lake Huron as on Lake Michigan. We want to better understand the Lake Huron ecosystem and develop modeling tools to predict how the lake is changing.”

Henry Vanderploeg, Ph.D., chief of GLERL’s Ecosystem Dynamics research branch and lead researcher for GLERL’s efforts in the pelagic (open water) portion of the initiative comments, “GLERL plays a critical role in the CSMI, addressing key science questions. GLERL’s high frequency temporal and spatial sampling will help determine nutrient and energy flows from tributaries, nearshore to offshore. This type of data is critical to effectively manage Lake Huron for water quality and fish production.” Frequent spatial surveys are key to understanding food web connections throughout the seasons.

Researchers from GLERL  will expand upon their recent work in Lake Michigan (CSMI 2015) and past work in Huron (2012) to determine fine-scale food-web structure and function from phytoplankton to fishes along a nutrient-rich transect (from inner Saginaw Bay out to the 65-m deep Bay City Basin) and along a nutrient-poor transect (from inner Thunder Bay out to the Thunder Bay basin) during May, July, and September. GLERL will collect additional samples of fish larvae and zooplankton along both transects in June to help estimate larvae growth, diet, density, and mortality and to identify fish recruitment bottlenecks.

“GLERL was instrumental in establishing the long-term monitoring efforts that provide the foundation for current CSMI food-web studies,” said Ashley Elgin, Ph.D., research ecologist in the Ecosystem Dynamics research branch. Elgin serves as the NOAA representative on the CSMI Task Team, part of the Great Lakes Water Quality Act Annex 10, alongside partners from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), EPA, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and the Ontario Ministries of Natural Resources and the Environment and Climate Change. This year, Elgin is conducting critical mussel growth field experiments in Lake Huron, expanding upon work she developed in Lake Michigan.  She will be addressing the following questions: (1) How does quagga mussel growth differ between regions with different nutrient inputs?; and (2) How do growth rates compare between Lakes Michigan and Huron? Elgin will also coordinate a whole-lake benthic survey, which will update the status of dreissenid mussels and other benthic-dwelling organisms in Lake Huron.  

GLERL’s key research partner, the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), will deploy a Slocum glider for a total of sixteen weeks to collect autonomous measurements of temperature, chlorophyll, colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM), and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) between outer Saginaw Bay and open waters of the main basin.  Deployment times and coverage will be coordinated with other glider deployments by the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD) and/or USGS Great Lakes Science Center, spatial research cruises, and periods of expected higher nutrient loads (i.e., following runoff events).  

CSMI research cruises began in late April and will continue through September. Researchers are using an impressive fleet of research vessels, including EPA’s 180-foot R/V Lake Guardian, GLERL’s 80-foot R/V Laurentian and 50-foot R/V Storm, and two large USGS research vessels, the R/V Articus and R/V Sterling. Sampling missions will also be conducted aboard Environment Canada’s Limnos across Lake Huron. The Laurentian is fitted out with a variety of advanced sensors and sampling gear, making it especially suitable for examining fine-scale spatial structure.

Scientists from the USGS Great Lakes Science Center, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and the University of Michigan are also participating in the Lake Huron CSMI.

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Scientists Work Around the Clock During Seasonal Lake Michigan Cruise

Last month, scientists from GLERL, the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER), and other university partners took the research vessel Laurentian for a multi-day cruise on Lake Michigan as part of seasonal sampling to assess the spatial organization of the lower food web—spatial organization simply means the vertical and horizontal location where organisms hang out at different times of day, and the lower food web refers to small organisms at the bottom of the food chain.

The research goes on around the clock. Scientists work in shifts, taking turns sleeping and sampling. The Laurentian spends a full 24 hours at each monitoring station, sampling vertical slices of the water column. Sampling at these same stations has been going on since 2010, providing a long-term dataset that is essential for studying the impact of things like climate change and the establishment of invasive species.

Sampling focuses on planktonic (floating) organisms such as bacteria, phytoplankton (tiny plants), zooplankton (tiny animals), and larval fishes which feed on zooplankton. Many of the zooplankton migrate down into deep, dark, cold layers of the water column during the day to escape predators such as fish and other zooplankton. They return unseen to warm surface waters at night to feed on abundant phytoplankton. Knowing where everything is and who eats whom is important for understanding the system.

Our researchers use different sampling tools to study life at different scales. For example, our MOCNESS (Multiple Opening Closing Net Environmental Sampling System) is pretty good at catching larger organisms like larval fish, Mysis (opossum shrimp), and the like. The MOCNESS has a strobe flash system that stuns the organisms, making it easier to bring them into its multiple nets.

The PSS (Plankton Survey System) is a submersible V-Fin (vehicle for instrumentation) that is dragged behind the boat and measures zooplankton, chlorophyll (a measure of phytoplankton), dissolved oxygen, temperature, and light levels. Measurements are made at a very high spatial resolution from the top to the bottom of the water. At the same time fishery acoustics show where the fish are. Together, these two techniques allow us to see where much of the food web is located.

Water samples are taken at various depths and analyzed right on the boat. This is a good way to study microbes such as bacteria and very small phytoplankton. The lower food web has been pretty heavily altered by the grazing of quagga and zebra mussels. Specifically, the microbial food web (consisting of microbes such as bacteria and very small phytoplankton) makes up a larger component of the food web than before mussel invasion, and scientists are working to find out exactly how this has happened.

Check out the photos below for a glimpse of life in the field!


Central Michigan University students Anthony and Allie are all smiles as they prepare to head out!


Getting the MOCNESS ready.


Chief scientist Hank Vanderploeg looks at some data.


Filtering a water sample—filtering out the big stuff makes it easier to see microbes.


Paul prepares the fluoroprobe.


Taking a water sample in the presence of a beautiful sunset!

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Tracking Changes in Great Lakes Temperature and Ice: New Approaches

In a new study, scientists from GLERL, the University of Michigan, and other institutions take a new look at changing ice cover and surface water temperature in the Great Lakes. The paper, set to be published in Climatic Change, is novel in two ways.

While previous research focused on changes in ice cover and temperature for each lake as a whole, this study reveals how different regions of the lakes are changing at different rates.

While many scientists agree that, over the long term, climate change will reduce ice cover in the Great Lakes, this paper shows that changes in ice cover since the 1970s may have been dominated by an abrupt decline in the late 1990s (coinciding with the strong 1997-1998 winter El Niño), rather than gradually declining over the whole period.

NOAA tracks ice cover and water surface temperature of the Great Lakes at a pretty fine spatial scale. Visit our CoastWatch site and you’ll see detailed maps of surface temperature and/or ice cover updated daily.

However, when studying long-term changes in temperature and ice cover on the lakes, the scientific community has used, in the past, either lakewide average temperature data or data from just a few buoys. We knew how each lake was changing overall, but not much more.

Now, for the first time, researchers are using our detailed data to look at the changes happening in different parts of each lake.

Using GIS (geographic information system) analysis tools, researchers calculated how fast ice cover and temperature were changing on average for each of thousands of small, square areas of the lakes (1.3 km2 for ice cover, and 1.8 km2 for temperature).

The maps below show the results. Changes in ice, on the left, are reported in the number of days of ice cover lost each year. Temperature changes are reported in degrees Celsius gained per year.


Panel a shows the change in seasonal ice cover duration (d/yr) from 1973 to 2013, and panel b shows the change in summer surface water temperature (°C/yr) from 1994 to 2013. Maps from Mason, L.A., Riseng, C.M., Gronewold, A.D. et al. Climatic Change (2016). doi:10.1007/s10584-016-1721-2. Click image to enlarge.

The researchers also averaged these values across major subbasins of the lakes. Maps of those results are below. The color coding is the same, and again, ice cover is on the left while temperature is on the right.

Note: These subbasins aren’t random, and were outlined by scientists as a part of the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Framework (GLAHF), which is meeting a need (among other things) for lake study at intermediate spatial scales.

The panel on the left shows the change in seasonal ice cover duration (d/yr) from 1973 to 2013, and the panel on the right shows the change in summer surface water temperature (°C/yr) from 1994 to 2013. Maps created by Kaye LaFond for NOAA GLERL. Click image to enlarge.

Depth, prevailing winds, and currents all play a role in why some parts of the lakes are warming faster than others. A lot of information is lost if each lake is treated as a homogenous unit. With so much variation, it may not make sense for every region of the Great Lakes to use lakewide averages. Studying changes at a smaller scale could yield more useful information for local and regional decision makers.

The second part of the story has to do with how ice cover has changed in the lakes. Previous studies typically represent changes in ice cover as a long, slow decline from 1973 until today (that would be called a ‘linear trend’). However, when looking at the data more carefully, it seems the differences between the 70’s and today in many regions of the Great Lakes are better explained by a sudden jump (called a ‘change point’).

The figure below shows yearly data on ice cover for the central Lake Superior basin. It is overlaid with a linear trendline (the long, slow decline approach) as well as two flat lines, which represent the averages of the data before and after a certain point, the ‘change point’.

Annual ice cover duration (d/yr) for the central Lake Superior basin, overlaid on the left with a linear trend-line, and overlaid on the right with a change-point analysis. Graphic created by Kaye LaFond for NOAA GLERL. Click image to enlarge.

Statistical analyses show that the change point approach is much better fit for most subbasins of the Great Lakes. 

So what caused this sudden jump? Scientists aren’t sure, but the change points of the northernmost basins line up with the year 1998, which was a year with a very strong winter El Niño. This implies that changes in ice cover are due, at least in part, to the cyclical influence of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

All of this by no means implies that climate change didn’t have a hand in the overall decline, or that when there is a cyclical shift back upwards (this may have already happened in 2014) that pre-1998 ice cover conditions will be restored. The scientific consensus is that climate change is happening, and that it isn’t good for ice cover.

This research just asserts that within the larger and longer-term context of climate change, we need to recognize the smaller and shorter-term cycles that are likely to occur.