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NCCOS Research Project

Development of a water clarity index and leading climate indicator for the Great Lakes

Primary Contact(s): doug.pirhalla@noaa.gov
This project began in April 2016 and is projected to be completed in April 2019

We are developing a water clarity index and climate indicator for the Great Lakes using satellite technology and weather patterns. The water clarity index will inform on the physical/biological drivers of the climate system and their impacts. We are also tracking and characterizing water clarity conditions around the maritime heritage resources, and of invasive zebra and quagga mussel impact on cultural resources within the recently proposed Wisconsin – Lake Michigan National Sanctuary.

Why We Care
The Great Lakes system provides countless services and opportunities for millions of Americans, supporting tourism and other recreational outlets from fishing and boating to beach use and scuba diving. Recreational boating alone produces more than $35 billion in economic activity annually, and recreational fishing generates $7 billion. The entire system is under constant threat from increased human activities and the impacts of changing climate and weather patterns, including warming air temperatures, increased frequency of storm events, and more intense rainfall patterns. Compounding factors of rising lake temperatures, decreasing ice extent, longer growing seasons, and invasive species, have become more problematic during the last century. These trends are expected to continue, which could cause declines in water quality, and negative impacts on human health, and infrastructure.

With regard to water quality, changing precipitation and runoff patterns, along with invasive zebra and quagga mussels, have contributed to lake-specific responses in water clarity, reductions in phytoplankton, increases in toxic algal blooms, and disruptions in the food chain. In contrast with many other water basins, both turbid and excessively clear water (especially for Lake Michigan) may trigger negative environmental responses. Understanding the role of climate in these complex ecosystem-stressor interactions is vital to developing a consistent climate- ecosystem indicator for each basin identified.

The goal of this project is to study how the Great Lakes have responded to weather fluctuations and climate to enable the development of a new water-clarity related climate indicator for the Great Lakes. This will also result in providing information for the preservation of natural and cultural resources in the Great Lakes. A proposed Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary aims to protect and conserve cultural maritime heritage, including 37 shipwrecks and related underwater cultural resources that possess exceptional historic, archaeological, and recreational value within the sanctuary.  The prognostic tool on status and future of water clarity conditions developed as part of this work will lead to more coordinated and timely responses to water clarity events and improved recreational activity planning for sanctuary users such as kayakers, snorkelers, and divers.  In this way the project supports the sanctuary’s goal of increasing regional heritage tourism through facilitating public access.

What We Are Doing
This three-year project includes a synoptic climatological assessment with light attenuation (the gradual loss of light in the water column) modeling and forecasting that will improve our understanding of climate-stressor interactions within the Great Lakes. This project will identify and isolate specific weather patterns for predicting changes in water clarity conditions. We will develop a historical reconstruction and database of light attenuation (Kd) values from 1998 to the present for both trend analyses and future clarity outlooks of monthly to seasonal lead times.  Forecast precipitation data and all necessary variables for weather pattern identification will be collected from NCEP’s Climate Forecast System Model version 2, along with forecast runoff data from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory’s (GLERL) Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System. These data will be input into the fully developed neural network model and run forward to predict the Kd index.

We are is collaborating with Kent State University and University of South Florida research partners with support from the NASA Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Sciences (ROSES) Program. Within NOAA, we are coordinating this project with GLERL and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries for in situ water quality data. The research team involved in this project have established extensive collaborative partnerships with the following user groups:

  • Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary and Partners
  • University of Wisconsin SeaGrant
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences
  • NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL)
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (for water quality assessment and nutrient management)
  • NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve Program for the Great Lakes
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Great Lakes State Departments of Natural Resources
  • Great Lakes State Departments of Fish and Wildlife
  • State Departments of Health
  • Great Lakes State Coastal Management Programs
  • NOAA’s Coastwatch (http://coastwatch.glerl.noaa.gov/)
  • NOAA’s Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS; (http://www.glos.us/)

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NCCOS delivers ecosystem science solutions for stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources, in direct support of NOS priorities, offices, and customers, and to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies.

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