New Institute Bridges Disciplines and Institutions Across the Great Lakes

By Mary Ogdahl, University of Michigan CIGLR

A new Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) was formed by the University of Michigan to infuse social science, engineering, and landscape design into ongoing natural science research across the lakes.

ciglr logoA 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.

ciglr regional consortium great lakes
The CIGLR regional consortium consists of nine university partners, 25 university affiliates, five private-sector partners, and numerous NOAA-related programs and supporting initiatives, including the IJC, that span all five Great Lakes.

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.

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Real-time water quality monitoring buoys in western Lake Erie measure oxygen conditions that help inform hypoxia forecast models. CIGLR Research Scientist Tom Johengen is pictured, performing monthly service on the sensors. Credit: Heather Miller

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.

To learn more, subscribe to the CIGLR newsletter and follow CIGLR on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Mary Ogdahl is the CIGLR program manager at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

ciglr glerl harmful algal blooms erie
CIGLR is working with GLERL and other partners to predict the intensity and movement of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in western Lake Erie, which threaten drinking water quality. Credit: NOAA

 

 

The IJC at International Association of Great Lakes Research Conference

By IJC staff

lake guardian
The Lake Guardian research vessel was anchored on the Detroit River during the International Association of Great Lakes Research conference, which took place in downtown Detroit from May 15-19. Credit: IJC

More than 1,000 scientists, educators, policymakers, academics, engineers and others descended upon Detroit, Michigan, from May 15-19 for the 60th annual International Association of Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) conference to discuss their latest findings and discoveries.

Attendees gave 20-minute presentations ranging from discussions on Lake Erie algal blooms and invasive species to updates on habitat restoration efforts and new technologies for management and research. IJC staff members were among those who participated.

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IJC Physical Scientist Matthew Child. Credit: IJC

Dr. Glenn Benoy, senior water quality and ecosystem adviser, spoke on the implications of Red-Assiniboine River basin nutrient models – created using a US Geological Survey modeling program – on Lake Winnipeg in Alberta. Physical Scientist Matthew Child presented an evaluation of the status of cleanup efforts in binational Areas of Concern.

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Michigan Sea Grant Fellow Allison Voglesong. Credit: IJC

Allison Voglesong, who has spent the last year at the IJC as a Michigan Sea Grant Fellow, gave a presentation on how to effectively connect with and identify audiences for science communications on social media.

Two keynote speakers presented before wide audiences in plenary sessions. Dr. Joan Rose, a member of the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board and chair of Michigan State University’s water research program, talked about the science of water quality and how it relates to public health through contaminants, bacteria and viruses. Cameron Davis, vice president of GEI Consultants and former US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adviser on the Great Lakes, talked about the “ecosystem” connections to the economy, politics, institutions and technology that all play a part in the health of the Great Lakes.

“We need to be a strong voice here for what we do with water,” Rose said in her remarks. “The water quality compact (between Canada and the United States) is among the strongest in the world – other places deal with water quantity but not quality, and we have a tremendous problem with waterborne diseases in the rest of the world.”

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Tad Slawecki, a senior engineer with Limnotech, demonstrates the concept of an ecological “point of no return” using a ball and a two-section bowl during a talk on Great Lakes early warning systems. Credit: IJC

IJC staff members from its Windsor, Ottawa and Washington offices attended sessions throughout the week, and will provide highlights in coming issues of Great Lakes Connection.

The meeting took place at Cobo Hall next to the Detroit River, so attendees also had the chance to tour the EPA’s Lake Guardian, one of the largest research vessels dedicated to the Great Lakes. The ship travels across all five lakes for eight months each year, collecting water and plankton samples, and helping scientists with their research. The crew focuses on a different lake each year for the bulk of the ship’s time in the water, and Lake Huron is in the spotlight this year. (See also: “Lake Guardian Research Vessel Completes Summer Survey”)

IAGLR’s 61st annual conference will be held in Toronto, Ontario, in 2018.

tank invasives
A tank of invasive sea lampreys found at one of the booths in a common area, where companies, government agencies and academic programs set up shop for attendees. Credit: IJC

What Happens at IISD Experimental Lakes Area During the Winter?

By Sumeep Bath, IISD Experimental Lakes Area

Lee Hrenchuk snowmobile Experimental Lakes Area
IISD-ELA Researcher Lee Hrenchuk rides a snowmobile at the research site. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

It‘s no secret that the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) is remote. The research site, operated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, is comprised of 58 lakes and their watersheds and located in a sparsely populated region of northwestern Ontario, Canada.

The facility’s remoteness is the reason the location was originally selected almost 50 years ago. It’s only by ensuring the lakes on which we experiment are pristine and untouched by other human activity that we can ensure our results are based on us, and us alone, manipulating those lakes.

The images you might recognize of the site are in glorious summer, with sun reflecting off the lakes, beautiful sunsets and researchers basking in the heat. But the IISD-ELA is open and functioning 365 days a year.

While most of the freshwater science, fish work, tours and educational programming take place during the official summer research season, researchers and facility managers are at the site during icy and bitter northwestern Ontario winters as well.

experimental lakes from above
One of IISD-ELA’s experimental lakes from above. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

What are we doing out there? First, we collect data for our Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, which includes meteorological, hydrological, water quality, and fisheries information from five IISD-ELA lakes and their watersheds. This dataset has been unbroken since 1968, even when the site was threatened with closure. We work on various data, ranging from the oxygen and temperature profiles of the lakes to the depth of the snow and the ice, and use this control data to compare the results between lakes and monitor changes over longer periods of times, such as the effects of climate change.

To physically capture the samples to generate this data, we snowmobile out onto the lakes, set up a contraption akin to a hut for ice fishing, use an electric or manual auger to break through the ice, and get the sample through the newly formed hole.

lake sampling in the winter
IISD-ELA researchers undertake lake sampling in the winter. Credit: IISD Experimental Lakes Area

We also track vital meteorological data at the site throughout the year for Environment and Climate Change Canada, so our meteorological site needs to be tended to daily. In winter we can service our equipment and make any necessary repairs and potential upgrades to the site as well.

Where do the other IISD-ELA researchers go and hibernate for the winter? They can mostly be found in Winnipeg, Canada, at the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s headquarters, working on and analyzing results collected during the summer, writing up research, and catching up on emails (which can pile up when you’re working in the field).

IISD-ELA’s doors also stay open for its perennial educational outreach program. In 2016, 12 courageous high school students from Winnipeg’s St John’s-Ravenscourt School braved an IISD-ELA March to take their Winter Survival Course at our research site.  Pauline Gerrard, our deputy director, worked with the school’s staff to arrange three days of survival skill building as the students learned how to build quinzhees (a shelter made by hollowing out a large pile of snow); survive a night outdoors; transport themselves through the snow; and read and understand the weather.

At the same time, the students are exposed to the world-class, unique freshwater science that takes place at the research site and broaden their skill sets as we showed them hydrological tasks on Lake 239. The course proved such a success that more intrepid explorers from St John’s-Ravenscourt School headed out to camp to take the course last month.

With the arrival of spring, IISD-ELA’s fourth research season will expand as the regular researchers and staff return to camp.

Be sure to visit www.iisd.org/ela to stay up to date with all the new research and education and outreach opportunities at the world’s only whole-lake experimentation research site.

Sumeep Bath is the media and communications officer at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area.

Major Expansion Coming to Lake Superior State University’s Aquatic Research Lab

By Gregory Zimmerman, Lake Superior State University

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Conceptual view of the proposed Center for Freshwater Research and Education outdoor educational park. Credit: LSSU staff

Since 1977, Lake Superior State University’s Aquatic Research Lab in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, has been a center for research and outreach around the ecology of the St. Marys River and other aquatic habitats, as well as a focal point for student training in fisheries. The lab is probably best known for its Atlantic salmon hatchery program, in which it raises Atlantics for release into the river and Lake Huron system. Thanks to the lab, the experience of fishing for Atlantics in the St. Marys Rapids is cherished by locals and by visitors from around world.

The hatchery operations are impressive. Lake Superior State University (LSSU) is one of only a few universities that offer students direct work experiences in a hatchery that releases fish into public waters – but the lab does much more. Research projects in the river and Great Lakes, inland lakes, streams and wetlands advance science and provide information for improving the management of our resources.

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Richard Barch of Ann Arbor releases a ceremonial portion of the 37,000 Atlantic salmon yearlings that Lake Superior State University stocked into the St. Marys River on June 2-3, while LSSU mascot Seamore the Sea Duck and community members look on. Credit: LSSU staff

Outreach activities inform residents and visitors about the importance of conserving our natural heritage. One example of outreach is the lab’s popular online “fish cam.” The lab is also a model of collaboration between the university, resource management agencies such as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment Canada, Cloverland Electric and other local organizations. Recent lab activities include a partnership in the Little Rapids Restoration project, the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Program, sturgeon research, and more.

Now the lab is slated to take a big step in expanding its work. The facility will move from the current, rather cramped, space in the east end of the Cloverland Electric Hydro Plant to much larger space in the former Edison Sault office space on the west side of the plant. The lab will have about three times the space it currently has and be renamed the Center for Freshwater Research and Education (CFRE). The move has been in the works for several years, ever since Edison Sault donated the previous office building to the university. Plans include much-expanded research space for fish culture and fish health, space dedicated to public outreach, a K-12 discovery room, office space for researchers, and an outdoor educational park.

Two major sources of financial backing are moving the plans into reality. Last July, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an appropriations bill adding CFRE to the state’s capital outlay plan. The state would provide 75 percent of the funding with the university responsible for covering the rest of the costs. Then, this past December, Dick and Theresa Barch donated $500,000 to lead the way in helping the university raise its share of the estimated total of $11.8 million needed to build the Center.

For more information about the lab, visit www.lssu.edu/arl. For information about contributing to CFRE, contact LSSU Foundation Director Tom Coates at (906) 635-6670 or tcoates@lssu.edu.

Gregory Zimmerman is a professor of biology at Lake Superior State University. His research interests include control of invasive plant species in wetlands.

Editor’s Note: You can comment on issues raised in this article as part of the IJC’s public comment period on the Progress Report of the Parties and Triennial Assessment of Progress. Go to ParticipateIJC.org.

Some Cyanobacteria Can Ruin the Mood for Invasive Mussels

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

quagga-mussels
Quagga mussels, pictured here after being exposed to serotonin to induce spawning, can have their spawning efforts stymied by certain kinds of cyanobacteria. Credit: Anna Boegehold

There’s something in the water that can spoil a quagga mussel’s romantic evening, according to a recent research project that found some species of cyanobacteria – known more commonly as toxic blue-green algae – can keep quagga mussels from successfully reproducing.

According to Anna Boegehold, a Ph.D. candidate at Wayne State University in Michigan, quagga mussels typically reproduce using what’s known as the broadcast spawning method, where males and females release sperm and eggs at the same time into the water. When some species of cyanobacteria – like Microcystis or Anabaena, are in the area, these spawning attempts are more likely to be unsuccessful. One specific species, known as Aphanizomenon, seemingly prevents the mussels from attempting to spawn at all – a behavior that could potentially help control the invasive species in the future.

The research project was funded by the US Geological Survey (USGS) and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and based on the premise that spawning can be induced in marine mussels and sea urchins by feeding them nutritious phytoplankton species. Boegehold and her collaborators were interested in seeing if the opposite was true for freshwater invasive quagga mussels by exposing them to toxic or cyanobacteria with little nutritional value. Between the 2014 and 2016 summer spawning seasons, the team, including Drs. Donna Kashian and Jeffrey Ram at Wayne State University and Dr. Nicholas Johnson at USGS, exposed quagga mussels to 13 different cultures of cyanobacteria largely from the Great Lakes region at concentrations below those found in harmful algal blooms.

In total, seven of those cultures prevented successful fertilization and reproduction to varying degrees compared to a control group of quagga mussels that had no cyanobacteria at all. In some cases, spawning was reduced by 52 percent when exposed to cyanobacteria species and fertilization by 44 percent. The study results were recently submitted for publication. Boegehold  is now testing how cyanobacteria impact veligers – the free-floating larval form of quagga mussels – and is interested in following up on her research to help figure out what Aphanizomenon is doing that keeps quagga mussels from attempting to spawn.

“We want to isolate what specific chemical in that cyanobacteria culture is responsible for preventing the spawning response,” she said. “Clearly, we don’t want to promote toxic cyanobacteria blooms in the lakes, so we want to pick out what chemical is doing that.”

cyanobacteria and quagga mussel samples
Boegehold checks on cyanobacteria and quagga mussel samples in the lab. Credit: Anna Boegehold

Invasive sea lamprey are already controlled in a similar manner by management officials with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, who will periodically use a lampricide to kill the parasitic predators in their larval state. The lampricide breaks down within days and doesn’t bioaccumulate up the food chain, giving it a minimal impact on the environment. Boegehold also highlighted research being done at USGS by Johnson that would help control lamprey with synthetic pheromones that alter their behavior. If a chemical from Aphanizomenon could be isolated, it could potentially be used similarly in water bodies where quagga mussels are found to reduce their numbers, though how it would be distributed and used is unknown at this time. No testing has been done yet to see if how, if at all, the presence of Aphanizomenon impacts the reproduction of invasive zebra mussels and native mussels and invertebrates, though Boegehold hopes to do so if a chemical can be isolated.

Since algal blooms are trending toward taking place earlier in the year, overlapping with the mussel spawning season, and while there haven’t been any determinations on how effective cyanobacteria are at limiting successful quagga mussel reproduction in the wild, that growing gap could reduce any potential effectiveness. Isolating the chemicals found in some of these cyanobacteria could allow water managers to mitigate that trend.

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Quagga mussel eggs, pictured here about three hours after being exposed to sperm, have a harder time being fertilized when exposed to cyanobacterial species like Microcystis and Anabaena. Dashed arrows in the photo represent eggs that have not been fertilized. Credit: Anna Boegehold

Quagga mussels and zebra mussels have inflicted massive ecological damage wherever they’ve been found by gobbling up the phytoplankton that make up the bottom of the food web in North American freshwater bodies, leaving less food for other predators, moving nutrients further nearshore and in turn causing a knock-on effect throughout the food web. The mussels also clog water intakes, causing additional costs for water treatment and electricity generation plants. Only a few species, such as the invasive round goby and the rare lake sturgeon, feed on the invasive mussels, but not to the degree that their numbers are being naturally controlled. Since their initial detection in the Great Lakes in the 1980s, they have spread to smaller inland lakes across the region, stretching as far west as Montana and California. While control efforts have been limited to simply trying to keep people from inadvertently moving them between water bodies, a way to prevent them from spawning would be a powerful tool in the fight.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Scientific Institute of the Month: School of Freshwater Sciences

By Jeff Kart

The School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee prides itself as the only graduate school in the North America solely dedicated to freshwater issues. For 50 years, it’s maintained the largest water-focused academic research institute on the Great Lakes.

“What sets us apart from your average school is that we tackle water from an interdisciplinary perspective,” says Eric Leaf, assistant dean for advancement. That means integrating a wide variety of scientific disciplines, as well as engineering, urban planning, policy and public health. “The networks of inputs (to the Great Lakes) is so complex that you need every discipline to understand it.”

Emily Tyner, a graduate student in the School of Freshwater Sciences, dives while working with the National Park Service to study benthic oxygen dynamics at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and how they may trigger avian botulism outbreaks. Credit: Harvey Bootsma/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Emily Tyner, a graduate student in the School of Freshwater Sciences, dives while working with the National Park Service to study benthic oxygen dynamics at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and how they may trigger avian botulism outbreaks. Credit: Harvey Bootsma/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The school is located in Milwaukee’s urban harbor near the shores of Lake Michigan, giving researchers and students a unique vantage point.

“It’s everything about our culture,” Leaf said. “We can walk out the back door, get on a boat and go do research.”

The Neeskay in the Milwaukee River. Credit: Troye Fox/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
The Neeskay in the Milwaukee River. Credit: Troye Fox/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The school focuses on four areas: Ecosystem dynamics with an emphasis on large lakes, human and ecosystem health, water policy, and water technology. Overall, there are 120 people in the organization, including 20 faculty and senior scientists and 60 master’s and Ph.D. students. In addition, the school maintains close ties to water-focused groups in engineering, geosciences, atmospheric sciences, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“Student success, research excellence and university engagement are the main themes of UWM,” Leaf said. “At the school I can’t separate those things. The students are working on real research projects that affect the community.”

The School of Freshwater Sciences was founded on the idea that policy decisions that affect the lakes should be driven by science. “That’s what our students are learning,” Leaf said, “how they as scientists can affect policy, how to communicate science and how to communicate with decision makers.”

The school operates a research vessel called the Neeskay — a named derived from a Ho-Chunk Native American word that means “pure, clean water.” Leaders are in the early stages of planning and fundraising for a next-generation ship that will operate as a research vessel and floating classroom.

See also: Milwaukee to Host Second Public Meeting on Progress to Restore Great Lakes

Students from the school conducting research on Lake Michigan aboard the Neeskay. Credit: Peter Jakubowksi/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Students from the school conducting research on Lake Michigan aboard the Neeskay. Credit: Peter Jakubowksi/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Since the Great Lakes are a shared resource with Canada, collaboration with agencies in that country also are routine — and valuable, says Associate Professor Harvey Bootsma.

Bootsma grew up in Canada and studied at the University of Manitoba and the University of Guelph. He conducts nearshore work related to problems like Cladophora, a type of algae that grows to nuisance levels, and invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

He says working with colleagues at the University of Waterloo has been especially helpful. Workshops between the Milwaukee school and the Ontario university have allowed scientists to compare notes and helped jumpstart several areas of research.

“We have similar problems in a number of the Great Lakes, especially nearshore issues,” Bootsma said. “It’s really beneficial for groups of scientists from different lakes to get together.”

What is the school trying to discover?

“It’s more of a lab-by-lab thing,” Leaf says. “From a broad perspective, the school wants to investigate how the Great Lakes and other water systems function—and how we as humans impact them—so that decision makers and managers can make informed decisions to manage our most precious water resources.”

That includes work such as developing a model of nutrient contamination to help water managers reduce the size and duration of “dead zones” in Green Bay.

“We do a tremendous amount of work collaborating with the community in southeast Wisconsin and around the Great Lakes,” Leaf said. “That’s one of the points we take pride in: Our work is not theoretical, it is applied science.”

Leaf notes a movement in Milwaukee to revitalize its inner harbor. The school recently received a grant to conduct an extensive aquatic survey of the harbor.

“In addition to revitalizing land use of the harbor and making it a stronger part of the community, (organizers) want a harbor that’s environmentally clean, that supports recreational fishing, that supports birds and wildlife, that becomes a natural refuge in the city,” he said.

School researchers are working with partners including the Harbor District Inc. and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to assess existing fish forage and spawning habitat and develop a map to inform strategic development.

“It’s a really interesting project because it’s being done in Milwaukee but the way we’re doing it could theoretically be done in almost any harbor,” Leaf said. “It’s science to inform policy decisions and drive economic activity.”

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s Great Lakes Connection and Water Matters newsletters.

Algal Bloom Researchers Adjust to Demand for Data

By John F. Bratton, LimnoTech

In the course of traditional environmental research projects, field work happens in the summer, sample processing and analysis take place in the winter, results are presented at scientific conferences the following year, and eventually are published in journal articles. This paradigm has shifted for harmful algal bloom researchers in Lake Erie. Stakeholders, funding agencies, and the media are coming to expect instant access to continuous observations from in-lake sensors, and access within hours to processed satellite images, laboratory test results, and model outputs.

This use of research data for guiding operational decisions presents logistical, organizational, legal, and ethical challenges. With little time for quality control, discussion with collaborators, or interpretation, preliminary research data and real-time observations have the potential to be read the wrong way by beach managers, charter fishing boat captains, or even operators of drinking water plants.

A network of algal bloom buoys and fixed instruments supported by permanent maintenance staff, vessels, and funding does not exist, unlike networks of instruments used for weather forecasting and navigation (think Doppler radar or Coast Guard channel markers). Because of this, researchers feel pressure to divert their energies away from performing experiments, developing new techniques, and mentoring students, to collect and communicate more routine monitoring data.

A variety of innovative data delivery methods are being used by researchers who study Lake Erie harmful algal blooms (HABs) to provide timely updates to stakeholders on changing conditions, while leaving more time to take care of other important responsibilities. There are related developments in effective HABs data sharing and communication with non-experts from locations beyond the Great Lakes.

Scientists are expected to collaborate closely with experts from outside their institutions and disciplines, and interact regularly and communicate clearly with reporters who want to know about their latest findings. Researchers who study environmental phenomena that potentially impact human health, such toxic algal blooms, are particularly in demand. Audiences that may include resource managers and the general public, however, require information in different forms than academic colleagues and graduate students.

map image satellite data blooms species cyanobacteria
Map image prepared from satellite data of blooms of three different species of cyanobacteria, as shown on NOAA’s Experimental Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin from July 15, 2016.

What’s at stake? Human, pet, livestock, and ecosystem health; tourism revenue; and the reputations of cities, states, institutions, and the researchers themselves hang in the balance. Putting out “bad” information than is incorrect or incomprehensible can put people and careers at risk.

What’s working well? Given the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, Web-based delivery of data and background material such as fact sheets, video clips, animations, and blog entries makes current information and context available to reporters and consumers whenever they want it — even if their local HABs researcher is unreachable when the latest bloom strikes.

The most current information on Lake Erie HABs is being provided by a loose collaboration of federal, state, and provincial agencies (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Sea Grant), universities (Heidelberg, Michigan, Ohio State, Toledo), drinking water utilities, nonprofits (Great Lakes Observing System), and private companies (Fondriest, LimnoTech). This group shares data and forecasts with each other and the United States and Canadian public in the form of map-based Web portals and automatically emailed forecast sheets and spreadsheets. Similar systems exist in Ontario, New England, the Gulf of Mexico, California, and Australia, among other locations.

screeshot glos habs data portal algae data
Screenshot of the GLOS HABs Data Portal from July 22, 2016, showing continuous blue-green algae data collected from an instrument that is deployed from a buoy near the Toledo, Ohio, water intake on Lake Erie. This is one of 18 stations on the lake that report real-time measurements.

What’s not working? Competition among media outlets and research groups can create pressure to sensationalize HABs stories, or share hypotheses or data interpretations prematurely. Information that is too technical, outdated, incorrect, vague, or conflicting can confuse listeners, readers, and viewers. Other problems with the information delivery system for HABs include a lack of clear authority for any one source (unlike the National Hurricane Center, for example), erratic funding for research and communication, the challenge of reaching diverse audiences, and time constraints on researchers and reporters.

For now, the Internet and email lists are helping to provide information to media outlets and the public, and take some of the pressure off of researchers. This can’t yet replace the demand, however, for on-the-water, at-the-shore, or in-the-lab interview footage of scientists in action. And maybe it’s good to see the people behind the data from time-to-time.

In the final analysis, the questions surrounding toxic algal blooms often come down to risk communication and empowering non-experts to make their own informed decisions. As with a family doctor or a trusted auto mechanic, it helps to hear directly from those who know what they are talking about, as long as they can put the technical terms and concepts into plain language.

John F. Bratton is a senior scientist with LimnoTech in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and previously worked for 17 years as a federal research manager and environmental scientist. He has also taught many courses as a part-time professor in Michigan and Massachusetts.