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The Information You Need for Your Day–or More–on the Great Lakes

Freighter in Muskegon Channel, Michigan, July 2003. (M. Lansing)

Freighter in Muskegon Channel, Michigan, July 2003. (M. Lansing)

What information would you want to have in hand before venturing out onto the Great Lakes?

The answer, of course, is that it depends.

Which lake? What time of day? What time of year? For how long? How far “out onto” the Lake? And in what kind of vessel?

There’s another important part to the answer. Who, after all, is the “you” here?

The questions could go on and on, but this is no riddle. For many using the extraordinary resources of the Great Lakes for commercial or recreational purposes, real answers in fact exist. And those answers are relied on, day in and day out, not only for residential but also for commercial purposes.

And, not to be forgotten, for emergency response purposes too, as in the all–too–frequent need for rescues of persons or vessels that have somehow lost their way or otherwise need emergency help.

Beach erosion from a Lake Michigan storm in December, 1985. Communities on the Great Lakes suffer from many of the same calamities as those who live along the shores of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico. (GLERL)

Beach erosion from a Lake Michigan storm in December, 1985. Communities on the Great Lakes suffer from many of the same calamities as those who live along the shores of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico. (GLERL)

For those and more, NOAA’s Great Lakes Operational Forecast System, GLOFS, provides essential answers. It does so through a series of hourly “nowcast” analyses of conditions ranging from water levels to water currents, tides, and temperatures. And it also provides 30–day forecasts four times a day, year–round, through every–six–hour information streams.

Depending on the individual user’s needs and wants and on variables related to weather, seasons, and other factors, the information needed will vary. The constant for all, however, is the desire—and through GLOFS the ability—to increase safety margins and efficiencies for those using the Lakes for pleasure or for business.

Completed in the spring of 2006, GLOFS has been hailed by NOAA as “a key milestone in NOAA’s continuing efforts to develop and implement sophisticated products and services to support our nation’s maritime commerce.” That’s a fancy way to say GLOFS is one more example of the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s (NCCOS) commitment to moving its ongoing scientific research into real–world applications.

Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan, south of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Frankfort, Michigan. October 2003. (J. Lefevre)

(Since its initial launch in Lakes Erie and Michigan in 2005, similar operational coastal forecast systems are now at work throughout all five Great Lakes and in the Chesapeake Bay, Galveston Bay, New York/New Jersey Harbor, and the St. Johns River in Florida. This piece looks in particular at the Great Lakes experience.)

The GLOFS system uses real–time data and wind, water level, and other meteorological information generated by a three–dimensional hydrodynamic model. The system evaluates and reports conditions at thousands of locations throughout the Great Lakes.

Users can access animated map plots of water levels, water currents, and temperatures. The product of 15 years of ongoing research operations funded by NCCOS, the effort originated as a joint project pairing NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and scientists from Ohio State University.

With some one–fifth of the globe’s fresh water supplies, the Great Lakes provide drinking water to more than 30 million people, and they support $1 billion commercial and $4 billion recreational fishing industries and more than 125,000 jobs. There is a lot riding on the information now readily available through GLOFS.

A small sailboat catches a puff of wind just outside Milwaukee’s harbor. (Timothy Dorch)

Whether addressing the transport of valued cargo through a potentially dicey strait at just the right time and lake conditions, facilitating the management of a neighboring community’s drinking water supplies, or informing the launch of an emergency response to a vessel in distress, the NCCOS–funded project can go well beyond merely answering the critical “How much water will be available, where and when?” query.

In providing community and civil authorities and coastal resource managers reliable Great Lakes information, for instance, the “always on” GLOFS program provides benefits ranging from improving forecasts of harmful algal blooms, informing resource managers on how to reduce oyster population declines, and generally supporting effective management of lakes and coastal estuaries.

The GLOFS capabilities have come about just as warnings from acknowledged experts such as the United Nations increasingly caution that growing fresh water shortages will affect “half the nations of the world” over the next two decades. Water experts are long past the time when some might have thought the planet’s water supply challenges would leave the U.S. unaffected by global water shortages.

GLOFS provides today’s water resource managers other valuable arrows in their quiver of tools and information for effectively managing our finite water supplies.


The various information resources provided will allow port managers, for instance, to better ensure safe shipping passage at the same time that emergency management agencies can access water quality and river, flood, and flash–flood information, strengthening their health and safety initiatives. More accurate and more timely forecasts on water levels, for instance, can translate into reduced commercial shipping fees, fuel savings, and lower energy costs, and therefore savings to consumers on shipments passing through the Great Lakes.

And by reducing lead times involved in estimating impacts of a flash flood, for instance, resource managers are better able to protect human lives that otherwise might be at greater risk.

Officials evaluating the potential risks of forest fires or flash floods, or commodity traders calculating future electricity demand, use the data resources along with academics and business interests in their business, economic, and environmental models.

But let’s return for a moment to the point above about protecting human lives. Is it really accurate to suggest that NOAA research leads to saving lives?

One need only look to the Great Lakes region’s newspapers to find numerous reports of instances in which recreational boaters have needed and gotten emergency response assistance from the Coast Guard, often leading to lives saved.

Cleveland–based Rescue Coordination center Supervisor Jerry Popiel, of the Ninth Coast Guard District, emphasizes that he uses the NOAA Great Lakes research products daily in posting forecasted sea and winds conditions for senior staff. He says he is particularly impressed that the data is so timely and easily understood.

Grand Haven lighthouse during winter storm

Grand Haven (Michigan) lighthouse during winter storm. Storms are major hazards on the Great Lakes, no less destructive to coastal communities than ocean storms can be to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf seaboards. (Carl TerHaar)

The eight Great Lakes states each year pose some 5,000 such incidents, Popiel says, about 80 percent of them involving disabled or distressed vehicles. The NCCOS Great Lakes environmental data is critical in shaping decisions on just where to focus search and rescue efforts. Those minutes and hours saved can and do amount to lives saved. Popiel hopes even more Great Lakes weather buoys can be deployed in coming years to allow even more reliance on observed rather than analyzed data.

Maintained to be operational 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, GLOFS is overseen by NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO–OPS).

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