Lake Erie has experienced late summer cyanobacteria blooms routinely since 2003. Research into the blooms points to phosphorus inputs from local rivers, especially the Maumee, as the prime factor controlling the blooms. To help with management and understanding, the National Ocean Service began an annual forecast of bloom severity in 2012.
By 2014, a numerical severity index ranging from 1 to 10 was developed, making it easier to communicate interannual variations in bloom intensity. The scale was calibrated with the intense 2011 bloom being assigned a 10, with 1 representing little or no bloom biomass over the bloom season from July to October. Overall cyanobacterial biomass was determined using data collected by satellite every one-two days.
The current iteration of the forecast is based on the amount of phosphorus entering the lake in the spring from the Maumee River, which provides the largest single source of phosphorus into any of the Great Lakes and carries a high concentration of bioavailable phosphorus, the form most suitable for supporting algal growth and bloom formation. This phosphorous comes mostly from agricultural runoff into the Maumee River from March to July. Despite these high phosphorous levels, however, intense blooms of cyanobacterial only form from July to September when water temperatures rise sufficiently to allow rapid cyanobacterial growth.
By early May, there is sufficient information from water samples and models to begin to project the size of the bloom. Phosphorus is monitored by Heidelberg University with daily samples analyzed each week. Weather models now allow the National Weather Service to forecast river discharge in Ohio from 45-60 days out, based on models using precipitation and temperature. Combining the measurements and models, NOAA has enough information to cover March to July, and issues a projection of the potential bloom size in early May. This projection is updated each week as more phosphorus measurements are collected. In early July, most of the phosphorus has been delivered, and the formal seasonal forecast is issued.
This year, the annual prediction of bloom severity will be made on July 12 at Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory. The event is organized with the Ohio Sea Grant program and will include information on other aspects of the bloom and management strategies.
Richard Stumpf is an oceanographer with the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, an arm of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
A five-year grant from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) supports a research institute at the University of Michigan and a binational regional consortium spanning all five lakes. CIGLR research is in partnership with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) in Ann Arbor, where CIGLR research institute staff are housed. CIGLR is one of 16 NOAA Cooperative Institutes across the US that link academic institutions with NOAA research laboratories to expand NOAA’s research capabilities.
The Great Lakes are too vast, and the problems too complex, for any one university to tackle alone. The CIGLR regional consortium broadens the intellectual expertise, research capacity, and geographic scope of NOAA’s Great Lakes research programs. More than 200 principal investigators at partner universities are sharing their intellectual and research capabilities. That includes 10 field stations, a fleet of 12 research vessels, more than a dozen engineering and design labs, a well-coordinated system of 38 mooring stations, mobile platforms and remote-sensing systems, and specialty labs in genomics, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), high-performance computing, and physical-chemical analyses.
Consortium members include universities, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, NOAA programs, government centers, and national and international commissions, including the International Joint Commission. Primary academic partners are: Central Michigan University, Cornell University, Grand Valley State University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota-Duluth, University of Windsor, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The new institute supersedes the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER), a NOAA-funded collaboration between University of Michigan and NOAA GLERL established in 1989. The name change reflects the increasing breadth of the institute’s research, which originally focused on natural science but is evolving to interdisciplinary work including social sciences, engineering, and landscape design. CIGLR is focusing more heavily on the co-design of research programs, forging partnerships between research scientists and data users who will work side-by-side to define the original questions and prioritize the products needed to solve problems. By partnering with technology development companies, Great Lakes industries, nongovernmental organizations and organizations like IJC, the new institute will help accelerate the transition of NOAA research into applications for society.
Nearly half of the investigators in the regional consortium are social or engineering and design scientists. CIGLR recently hired two social scientists to work within the research institute, focusing on stakeholder engagement and the human dimensions of Great Lakes water quality problems, such as harmful algal blooms and depleted oxygen, or hypoxia. These social scientists are working alongside physical scientists to involve water treatment managers in the design and implementation of a hypoxia forecast system for Lake Erie that will help predict changes to drinking water quality.
As a complement to CIGLR’s interdisciplinary and collaborative research, the institute’s ECO Program fosters the transfer of Great Lakes research and knowledge into actionable science. ECO Program goals include:
Engagement – Support informed decision making by advising local, state, and federal policymakers about the importance of Great Lakes’ ecosystem services
Career training – Promote a diverse, skilled workforce with career training for undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs who will be the next generation of Great Lakes and NOAA scientists
Outreach and communications – Advance environmental literacy by communicating the value, importance, and utility of NOAA’s Great Lakes research to the general public.
Recent research by Devin Gill, stakeholder engagement specialist with CIGLR, says that the tracker tool could be made more helpful for the recreational fishing industry. Gill held focus group sessions and met with charter boat captains and recreational anglers from Wyandotte, Michigan, to Erie, Pennsylvania to gather input.
“Everyone agreed that HABs are gross, stinky, and that they don’t enjoy fishing in them,” Gill said. “That was the primary reason they prefer to not fish in them and to try and find clear water.”
Going into HABs means getting algae slime on a boat and having to go slower in the water. Fish also can accumulate microcystins, a toxin associated with harmful algal blooms.
The HAB tracker uses color coding on maps to indicate where blooms are, how severe they are and where they are likely to move in the coming days. Gill said most anglers responded positively to the tool, but the information was somewhat abstract for her focus groups, and additional information is needed to help anglers interpret what the color coding means. One idea being considered is adding a photo reference guide to show what each color means on the ground, though nothing has been decided yet. She also found that more work was needed to get the word out about the tracker: of 41 participants, only 11 had heard of the tracker, and only four had tried to use it.
Gill said researchers are exploring additional information to include, like a photo library of the blooms at varying concentrations, to help anglers and boaters interpret conditions and whether they want to go on the water. Beyond that, more outreach is necessary to build trust with managers and researchers. She said several participants weren’t aware of efforts to try and deal with the causes of the blooms, and getting a better idea of the wants and needs of users can make for a stronger forecast program. Since the recreational fishing industry is worth US$2 billion a year in Ohio alone, it’s important to local economies that the forecast be helpful to anglers.
“I think the HAB tracker has the potential to show people that even though there’s a bloom occurring on Lake Erie, there are pockets of clear water,” Gill said. “The bloom isn’t everywhere – it’s not blanketing the lake unless it’s a bad season.”
Gill added that while CIGLR is working to develop a formal way for the public to give feedback and thoughts on the HAB tracker, in the meantime they can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As of June 2, NOAA has noted that since May was a wet month in the region, the amount of phosphorus washing into western Lake Erie from the Maumee River has exceeded the amounts seen in mild bloom years. There is uncertainty regarding the final amount of phosphorus that will end up in Lake Erie, which in turn feeds the algal blooms in the late summer. NOAA releases regular bulletins updating HAB conditions and forecasts on the lake.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.
While each lake is unique, they all tend to follow a similar cycle based on seasonal changes. Water levels typically reach their seasonal low during the winter months before increasing in the spring due to snowmelt and precipitation. Water levels tend to peak during the summer months, before beginning to drop in the fall and early winter.
There are three main factors that impact lake water levels, said Drew Gronewold, physical scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory: the precipitation over the lakes, evaporation of water on the lakes into vapor, and the runoff that comes into the lakes.
These variables, in turn, are affected by changes in air and water temperatures. For example, Gronewold said the timing of big runoff pulses is dependent on the amount of snow building up in the winter months and when it melts in the spring.
A water level decline in the fall is generally driven by evaporation, as air temperatures drop while surface water temperatures are still relatively warm. While water temperatures were relatively warm during the fall and winter months of 2016-2017 – leading to a lack of ice cover – evaporation amounts have been typical for this time of year due to a relatively mild winter air temperatures, Gronewold said.
These recent conditions, coupled with historical data, lead agencies to expect the water level rise to remain fairly typical this spring and into the summer. As water levels are already above their long-term average for this time of year, researchers expect that they’ll remain above average in the coming months, Gronewold explained.
There is still plenty of uncertainty, he added, as the amount of snow on the ground is less than it has been in some recent winters. It’s also difficult to predict continental-wide meteorological and climate patterns that impact Great Lakes weather patterns and temperatures. These can range from an El Niño effect like the one seen in the winter of 2015-2016 or a “polar vortex” that hit the region in the winters of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. This uncertainty is expressed as a range of possible water levels in the forecasts released by the US Army Corps and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Great Lakes water levels also can be influenced by human management. Hydropower plants and a gated dam on the St. Marys River are used to manage outflows from Lake Superior into Lake Michigan-Huron, while a hydropower plant on the St. Lawrence River is used to manage outflows from Lake Ontario. Outflows through these structures are managed binationally by boards and according to orders and criteria established by the IJC. Nonetheless, the control of water flows through these lakes is limited, and weather conditions and water supplies remain the most significant factor affecting water levels.
Water levels are measured based on the International Great Lakes Datum, defined as the height above sea level at Rimouski Quebec on the St. Lawrence River. Agencies have been measuring lake levels since the 1860s, with more reliable levels going back as far as 1918. They base the lakes’ long-term average water levels on that information.
“We expect a range of water level conditions depending on water supplies,” said Jacob Bruxer, senior water resources engineer with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “There’s a lot of variability and uncertainty in weather and water supply forecasts, particularly when looking beyond a few weeks’ time, so we don’t try to forecast any specific trends and instead consider a full range of water supply scenarios that could be expected.”
According to recent forecasts, through September 2017 Lake Superior is likely to remain at or above seasonal averages, with a small chance of falling below its long-term average in July. There is less uncertainty for the spring months; water levels were about 5.5 inches (0.14 meters) above the long-term average by the end of March, and by May that range could be between 2.7 inches to 10 inches above the average (0.07 meters to 0.27 meters). By September, water levels could be as high as 1 foot (0.3 meters) above the long-term monthly average for Superior.
Lake Michigan-Huron, considered as one lake hydrologically, was about 9.4 inches (0.24 meters) above the March long-term average by the end of the month. By September, Michigan-Huron is expected to remain above the long-term average, in a range of 1-16 inches (0.02-0.4 meters). Gronewold said Michigan-Huron saw water levels fall slightly more during the fall months of 2016 than is typical, but that is unlikely to make a discernible difference during this spring and summer.
Higher-than-average water levels are anticipated on Lake Erie, which has seen water levels on the rise in recent months, reaching more than 17 inches (0.44 meters) above the long-term average by the end of March. Water levels are expected to continue to remain above average this spring, before starting to fall around June to a range of 3.9-16 inches above average (0.10-0.41 meters).
Lake Ontario has a slight chance of being just barely below its long-term average going into summer, but will more likely be above it by up to 15 inches (0.38 meters). The forecasted peak is in May, when water levels could be 3.9-21 inches above average (0.10-0.55 meters). Water levels are then expected to fall at about the same degree as they usually do, according to the long-term average.
The US Army Corps publishes 12-month forecasts for Lakes Erie, Huron-Michigan and Superior, as well as Lake St. Clair, based on current conditions and similar historical weather data. Uncertainty grows substantially more than six months out, but most outcomes for Lakes Erie and Michigan-Huron suggest a greater likelihood of continued higher-than-average water levels through the year. Lake Superior also has a better chance of higher-than-average water levels, but faces a substantial possibility of being below that long-term average, too.
Fall is here and winter officially begins Dec. 21, but it’s no time to hibernate when it comes to public involvement. Bear these items in mind.
Microplastics: Thanks to those who have taken the time to draw up comments on proposed IJC recommendations on microplastics (due Nov. 10). Watch for our final report in the next few months.
Marine Debris: Pass along information about a Marine Debris Art Contest from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s open to students in grades K-8 and the deadline is Nov. 30. Winning entries will be featured in a 2018 Marine Debris Calendar.
The proposed moratorium would prohibit any new or increased use of groundwater in Ontario for water bottling until Jan. 1, 2019, to allow time for a comprehensive look at Ontario’s groundwater resources and rules that govern water bottling facilities that take groundwater. “This will help enhance water security in Ontario, by ensuring the wise use and management of groundwater in the face of climate change and increasing demand due to population growth,” according to the Ministry. Comments are being taken until Dec. 1.
Algal blooms: The onset of colder weather will cut the threat of harmful algal blooms. But the issue still looms large, and has been the focus of efforts by Canada and the US to cut nutrient inputs to Lake Erie. The Ontario government is taking comments on a policy proposal for “Reducing Phosphorus to Minimize Algal Blooms in Lake Erie” until Nov. 20. It’s part of binational efforts to cut phosphorus loads to the lake by 40 percent by 2025.
Contribute: That’s a sampling of what’s out there. If you think we’ve missed anything that should be included now or in the future, comment below or send an email to email@example.com.
Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.
Forecasting agencies in the United States and Canada expect Great Lakes water levels to remain near or above their long-term average for the next six months.
Water levels are measured on the International Great Lakes Datum, defined as the height above sea level at Rimouski Quebec on the St. Lawrence River estuary. According to the coordinated, binational forecast at the beginning of July, Lake Superior is expected to remain about 6 inches, or 15.4 centimeters, above its long-term average for this time of year through the summer, before falling closer to average levels in the fall. While this forecast is based on normal weather conditions in coming months, lake levels could be higher or lower depending on whether we have a wetter or drier than normal summer and fall. Long-term averages are based on data going back to 1918.
Lake Michigan-Huron, which have a common level due to their connection at the Straits of Mackinac, is expected to be 10-12 inches (30.8 cm) above average in the summer before falling closer to average in the fall. Lake Erie also is expected to be within 1 foot above average in the summer before ending closer to 8 inches, or 20.32 cm, above average in the fall. Lake Ontario’s July level is 1 inch (2.54 cm) below average for this time of year and is expected to remain close to average in the fall.
Jacob Bruxer, Environment and Climate Change Canada senior water resources engineer, said Lake Ontario’s comparatively lower water levels are due to the warm, dry weather conditions around the lake that started around March. Bruxer is also a member of the IJC’s International Lake Superior Board of Control and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee.
“Those conditions would be bad if we started at average levels, but we’re right around average,” Bruxer said. “We’re not seeing any significant concerns to shipping or recreational boaters.”
The higher water levels on Superior, Michigan-Huron and Erie mean some boat launches could be underwater and beaches are smaller than they would be with lower levels. On the flip side, boaters should have plenty of depth to get their boats into their docks, and anglers may find more coastal areas to fish than they would otherwise. Bruxer added that high levels can lead to greater erosion along bluffs and shorelines due to waves and storms.
Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, explained that the Great Lakes typically follow a seasonal cycle where water levels rise in the spring from runoff and peak in early summer. The lakes then fall in the autumn and winter months as evaporation — caused by temperature differences between the warm water and cool air — picks up, reaching their lowest point around January and February.
As of mid-July, Gronewold said there’s no indication that the autumn dip will be stronger than usual in the lakes, or that water levels will increase – something that occurred in the autumn and winters of 2013 and 2014 on Lake Michigan-Huron and Lake Superior. Bruxer said the lakes are expected to remain either near or slightly above seasonal averages for the foreseeable future.
Coordinated six-month forecasts of Great Lakes water levels are published online each month by the US Army Corps of Engineers and Environment and Climate Change Canada (via the Canadian Hydrographic Service). The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also provides these forecasts on its water level online viewer each month. Forecasted water levels are determined using binational data and several different models that account for possible variations in evaporation, precipitation and runoff on the lakes over the coming months.
Lauren Fry, civil engineer with the Corps, said the model provides potential outcomes given climatic scenarios, developed based on current conditions and similar existing historical weather data. For example, with the strong El Niño cycling over the past winter, Fry said the agency used data from similarly strong 1982 and 1997 El Niño events to determine a range of potential lake level impacts from October 2015 until September 2016. The most recent one-year outlook from April suggests higher-than-average water levels will most likely continue until April 2017.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.