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NOAA Ecological Forecast Helps Solve Mystery in Lake Erie

Published on: 09/15/2021
Primary Contact(s): felix.martinez@noaa.gov

During a recent late summer weeknight, residents of several northeast Ohio Lake Erie towns were surprised by a strong foul smell. As reported by The Plain Dealer (Cleveland.com), residents fearing a potential dangerous gas leak quickly started calling their local fire departments. The local gas company was called to investigate and were quick to reassure the residents that no gas leak was found and that the unusual late night smell was actually coming from the lake.

Thanks to the work from collaborative team of NOAA scientists and partners, the NOAA Experimental Lake Erie Hypoxia Forecast was able to predict that the Greater Cleveland area was going to be exposed to a large mass of low oxygen water, also known as hypoxic water, moving in from the deeper parts of the middle section of Lake Erie known as the Central Basin. Hypoxic water can have a foul odor due to the reduced sulfur and nitrogen compounds that come from decomposing matter at the lake bottom, which could be mistaken for the odor additives in natural gas. Two days in advance of the event, NOAA sent a notice to an email list for the experimental hypoxia forecast, including public water systems, state agencies, charter anglers, and researchers, which helped to prepare officials to respond to public inquiries.

The Experimental Lake Erie Hypoxia Forecast of the event, as it appeared prior to the event on August 31, 2021, showing low oxygen waters in Western Lake Erie and also accumulated along the southern shoreline of the lake. Image created on Sept 9, 2021. Credit NOAA GLERL.

The Central Basin has hypoxic water events every summer but until recently there was no way to know when or where these events might occur. Scientists from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and the University of Michigan Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, with funding support from the NCCOS Coastal Hypoxia Research Program, have been working since 2017 to develop and implement a forecasting system to predict hypoxic water reaching the coastal areas of the Central Basin. If the research team determines that a hypoxic water event is possible they issue a warning to water treatment operators so they can monitor for low oxygen water and prepare their system so it can be treated for safe consumption.

Easterly/northeasterly winds winds push low-oxygen water up against the southern shore of Lake Erie in mid-September 2021. Credit Fox 8 TV, Cleveland OH.

The value of the experimental forecast does not end there. Information about the predicted depth and location of the hypoxic water is available to resource managers and the public. As part of the last hypoxic water event, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was able to solve another mystery. Various reports of unusual numbers of dead fish washing ashore were made by concerned residents. Because they had also received the hypoxic event warning notice, resource managers were able to confirm and report back to callers that the fish kills were associated with the low oxygen water event and not likely associated with a pollutant spill.

Read more about the Experimental Lake Erie Hypoxia Forecast in the NOAA GLERL Blog.

To learn more about the forecast, or to be added to the email list, contact forecast developer, Mark Rowe (mark.rowe@noaa.gov). For information on the NCCOS Hypoxia Research Program, contact Felix Martinez (felix.martinez@noaa.gov).

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