Friday Foto: Subzero temps put Great Lakes in a deep freeze

This week's freezing temperatures have pushed the Great Lakes to near-record levels of ice coverage. Roughly 85 percent of the basin is under ice right now. If the cold weather continues, we could break the 1979 record of 94 percent. 

With these large sheets of ice preventing evaporation, it's safe to assume this summer will see another rise in water levels. This is good news for many Great Lakes habitats and communities. Before last year's harsh winter, water levels were on a 15-year decline that had taken its toll on commercial shipping, navigation, and nearshore wildlife. 


Hands-on science connects students with local habitats

Earlier this year, AP science students at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep traded in their textbooks for field equipment to study water quality in the North Branch of the Chicago River. The Hydrolab allows students to monitor water characteristics like dissolved oxygen, pH, and conductivity with sensors similar to those used by scientists at the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office. The teacher, Dianne Lebryk, borrowed the equipment through the Limno Loan program to help students better understand the connection between water quality and man-made landscapes. 

Several students wrote in to share their experiences working with the Hydrolab. We'll kick things off with Timie Ogutuga.
Taking an AP Environmental Science class really causes you to become more aware of the environment in which we live. It is so easy to overlook the effects our habits and lifestyles can have, not just on us, but also on other forms of life that also call Earth their home. Specifically with the Hydrolab, I learned that the toxins that we emit seep into bodies of water and settle there, producing various hazardous chemicals and toxins. This results in increased death rates in the ecosystem. I also noticed that a great eutrophication effect occurred. Because of this, there was also an increased amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients in the water. There were low oxidation levels and we noticed that many fishes were dead, floating on top of the gray-greenish water. This observation emphasized the fact that if we do not take steps to lower the amount of chemicals and toxins dwelling in the atmosphere, more of what we noticed in this particular area would get worse and our environment as a whole would deteriorate. 
I found this lab to be very fun, and it was nice to utilize the equipment. As a person who has such a great interest in the environment, using the equipment to find the condition of certain ecosystems really excited me. It made me really feel like I could make a difference and take initiative in helping to improve our environment. Seeing the excitement in my classmates also made me happier because as the future generation, we can be proactive and produce a healthier environment. 
This lab showed me that human activity can speed up the rate in which nutrients enter the ecosystem. We are not the only ones that call Earth our home, and we need to ponder on the effects our actions can have on our home.
***Photo: Students in New York use the Hydrolab to test local water quality. Courtesy of Sandy Cunningham. 


Join the team as a summer intern

Undergraduate students and recent graduates with an interest in water issues and environmental studies can now apply for our summer internship program. Successful applicants will spend 12 weeks working closely with an IISG specialist on key issues affecting the Great Lakes region. 

Internships are available in the following areas: 
  • Communications
  • Field sampling
  • Human dimensions
  • Outreach
  • Website development
As student employees of Purdue University or University of Illinois, interns will be paid $12/hour for 37.5 hours a week. Some travel and weekend work may be required. Specific start dates will depend on school calendars, but all internships are expected to run May–August 2015. 

To apply, submit a CV, goal statement, unofficial transcript, and letter of recommendation to Angela Archer by March 16. 

For complete details on available positions and application requirements, visit our internship page. You can also read more about past internship projects and what the students are up to now. 

***Photo: 2012 intern Naoki Wada does a final check before the inaugural launch of our Michigan City nearshore buoy. 


Join the fight against aquatic invaders

It’s National Invasive Species Awareness Week, and we’re celebrating with fun facts about Great Lakes invaders and tips for how you can help halt their spread.

Roughly 200 non-native species have already made a home in the Great Lakes region, and many more lurk on the horizon. Some, like zebra mussels and hydrilla, permanently impact the health of every new area waterway they invade by crowding out native species and altering water clarity, oxygen levels, and other key environmental characteristics.

Thanks in part to Sea Grant and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, scientists and government agencies have taken great steps in recent years towards controlling aquatic invasive species. For example, researchers at Notre Dame created tools to identify potential invaders and pinpoint where they may first take root. Collaborative projects like PhragNet are helping natural resource managers identify the most effective management and restoration strategies. And state and federal regulations are closing off some of the most common invasion pathways.  

But there is still a lot individuals can do to fight the spread of aquatic invaders. Next time you go fishing, boating, or even swimming in a lake or river, remember these three easy steps:
  • Remove any plants, animals, and mud from all equipment.  
  • Drain all water from your boat and gear.      
  • Dry everything thoroughly with a towel.
Water gardeners and aquarium hobbyists can also help by choosing native or non-invasive species. And we can all do our part by making sure we never dump plants, fish, animals, or the water they've been in into any waterbody.

We’ll have more facts, important resources, and even chances to test your knowledge of aquatic invasive species all week on Facebook and Twitter

You can also take part in daily webinars hosted by University of Georgia Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health. For more information and to register, visit www.nisaw.org/2015webinar.html


Friday Foto: Pullman one of Chicago's South Side jewels

In the late 1800s, Chicago's Pullman neighborhood was a carefully-planned company town with as many as 20,000 residents. Many worked for the Pullman Palace Car Company building luxury railroad sleeper cars. Others made a living in the trade school, library, bank, and shops built to support the workers and their families. This week, the Pullman Historic District became a national monument celebrating the role this South Side community played in America's industrial labor movement. 

Like many communities in the Calumet region, Pullman is a reminder of the rapid industrial growth that helped make Chicago the nation's Second City. But urban history is not the only thing that sets this region apart. The southern tip of Lake Michigan is also home to rare vegetation and a wide variety of habitats. In fact, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is one of the most biodiverse areas of the country.  

***Photo courtesy of Josh Ellis.


Website of the week: The ins and outs of medicine disposal

A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy. 

With flu season waning and allergy season on its way, it’s important to keep in mind how to properly dispose of unused and unwanted medicine. IISG’s Unwanted Meds website explains the dangers of flushing or throwing away pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) and provides information, tools, and resources to help individuals, communities, and educators protect aquatic ecosystems.

The award-winning site contains information on collection programs and events for the Great Lakes region and beyond, as well as a list of commonly accepted and unaccepted items. Instructions for alternative disposal methods are also included for individuals without access to collection programs. 
And visitors looking to prevent PPCP waste will find tips and resources for reducing the amount of unwanted medicine in their homes as well as avoiding personal care products with potentially harmful chemicals.

Local decision makers can take advantage of a free toolkit with instructions for how to safely and legally conduct their own collection program or event. And educators can get help incorporating pollution prevention into their teaching with resources like The Medicine Chest and The Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal (P2D2) Program.

In addition to tips and tools, Unwanted Meds is also host to the latest information on the science behind PPCPs. Its Rx for Action blog discusses leading research on everything from where pharmaceuticals have been detected to how these chemicals impact wildlife to new technologies for removal during wastewater treatment. Readers can also go behind the scenes with the scientists working to make sense of this complicated topic with the UpClose interview series. 

For the last information on PPCPs and other emerging contaminants, be sure to follow our pollution prevention team on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, or Google+


Scientists, communities get help from NASA soil moisture mapper

The mission of NASA's newest Earth satellite may sound simple, but its findings could have huge impacts across the world and right here in the Midwest. When it launched last month, the Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, began a three-year project to collect data on a key player in the water and carbon cycles that determine plant growth and drive weather patterns: soil moisture. IISG's Michael Brennan has the details. 
As the name suggests, soil moisture data tells us how much water the soil can absorb and store. These measurements play a crucial role in everything from knowing when to plant crops to community flood planning. If there isn't enough moisture in the soil, plants can't take root and grow. And if the soil's storage capacity has been maxed out, any additional rain or snowfall will runoff into nearby rivers and lakes—carrying nutrients and contaminants with it. 
Due to the earth’s vast landscape, tracking and assessing soil moisture is extremely challenging, especially in remote locations. In fact, a lack of detailed soil moisture data has historically been a significant hurdle for community planners, farmers, and climate and weather forecasters. SMAP has the potential to change all of that. Its microwave radiometer and radar instruments will give us the most accurate, high-resolution moisture data ever collected from space. And its orbital path will ensure we have measurements from pole to pole. 
NASA has said that it expects to release the first set of measurements within nine months, with fully-validated data expected in 15 months. With these numbers in hand, farmers will be able to hone in on the ideal time for planing and harvesting and community decision makers will be able to pinpoint their flood risk—and plan accordingly. The data will also tell scientists how much carbon is being stored in or released by plants, allowing them to refine the climate models that we rely on to predict and prepare for the impacts of climate change.  
The NASA space program is responsible for a lot of technological and scientific advancements, but SMAP may be its greatest contribution yet. 
For more information on SNAP for video showing its launch and orbit, visit smap.jpl.nasa.gov/


AIS team sets a course for the Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show

IISG is once again headed to the Midwest’s biggest sports show to spread the word about easy steps boaters and anglers can take to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. The Indianapolis Boat, Sport and Travel Show will take place February 20 – March 1 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Danielle Hilbrich and Alice Denny will be onsite at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources booth in the Tackle Town pavilion beginning Feb. 26.   

With hundreds of exhibits featuring information and cutting-technology on everything from fishing tackle to boating to quite sports, this show is a one-stop-shop for outdoor enthusiasts. Speeches spanning the week will also give visitors a chance to hear directly from professional anglers. Radio host Dan Armitage will even hold seminars with 'how-to' advice for the kids interested in fishing. 

Despite its size, we know many boaters, anglers, and other recreational water users can’t make it out to Indianapolis. Fortunately, you can read all about how aquatic invaders like quagga mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil are crowding out native species and changing food webs on our website. You can also learn how three simple steps—remove, drain, dry—can curb the spread of existing invaders and prevent the introduction of new species. 


Friday Foto: Go native this summer

For those of you who are already thumbing through your gardening catalogs, be sure to dog-ear the pages with native plants. Species like these purple coneflowers are a beautiful addition to any landscape—one that requires less water and fertilizer in the long term. And, like all Midwestern natives, they will improve the health of your garden by retaining water, rebuilding topsoil, and attracting pollinators. 

Find more tips for building a beautiful, healthy landscape with natural lawn care practices on our Lawn to Lake page


The dollars and cents of sediment remediation

We talk a lot about the environmental benefits of sediment remediation. These are hard to miss—a trip to the river or harbor is often all it takes to confirm that the aquatic habitat is on the mend. The role of cleanup projects on local economies can be harder to pin down, but the impacts are just as striking. Brandon Steppan, IISG's new communications intern, has the story. 

I’ve lived in the city all my life. With the exception of a few parks and forest preserves, I never really saw environmental health as being all that connected to the welfare of my community. The only rivers that ever made the news were the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day and the Des Plaines River whenever it flooded—especially if that meant Gene and Jude’s, an iconic hot dog stand in River Grove and arguably the best place to get a Chicago-style hot dog, would have to shut down for repairs.

What I’ve learned about other Great Lakes communities in the short time I’ve been with IISG has already made me reevaluate just how valuable a healthy river can be—not just in terms of environmental integrity, but in dollars and cents. Results of economic studies of Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) have listed the values of what a clean waterbody would be for those communities, with numbers ranging from $6 million for one small neighborhood to $19 billion for all 31 original AOCs in the U.S. To get these numbers, economists and social scientists looked at money brought in from tourism, real estate values, and residents’ willingness to pay for a cleaner waterway. 

One of the more remarkable returns came from a 2004 examination of the Waukegan Harbor AOC in Illinois. An analysis of housing data and resident perceptions determined that proximity to the PCB-ridden harbor substantially drove down property values. When surveyed, Waukegan homeowners revealed they would be willing to pay more for their property if it meant full cleanup of the harbor—a collective value of $436 million, much more than the projected cost for remediation.

My initial reaction to these reports was a mixture of confusion and surprise. But as I took into account the number of people in each area and how they rely on their local rivers not just for livelihood but for quality of life, the numbers no longer seemed all that surprising. The hazards of a toxic river bed aren’t always obvious, and unfortunately, neither are the benefits of remediation. Having these numbers available helps create a conversation where those benefits are no longer vaguely environmental, but economically tangible.

***Photo from the Waukegan Port District.


Website of the week: Be an AIS super sleuth

A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy. 

Hundreds of invasive species are on the loose in U.S. waters wreaking havoc on habitats, recreation, and economies. Fortunately, a team of student detectives are on the case and ready to book these "bad guys" with help from Nab the Aquatic Invader!

This educational website turns students grades 4-10 into PIs hot on the trail of some of the worst invaders in their region. After brushing up on detailed profiles complete with interrogation recordings, students take part in ongoing investigations led by veteran gumshoes. Whether they join as junior detectives or super sleuths, students learn to ID the suspects, expose the damage they cause, and stop invaders before they strike again. 

The site also includes a teacher Top Desk Administrator with example projects that give students a chance to share what they've learned with their communities. Along with detailed summary reports, these examples make it easy for teachers to plan and implement successful AIS stewardship projects in their own classroom. 

But you don't have to go online to crack a case. A suite of card games and posters inspired by the website are also available. Students and adults alike can even join the hunt for the most wanted AIS at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in D.C. and at Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers throughout the country. 

Nab the Aquatic Invader! was created by IISG and Sea Grant programs in New York, Louisiana, Connecticut, and Oregon. 


In the news: Wauconda, Volo get OK for Lake Michigan water

Three years after residents of Wauconda, IL approved a plan to transition to Lake Michigan water, the Lake County village has finally received the okay to build the infrastructure needed for delivery. Along with the nearby village of Volo, Wauconda is expected to begin tapping into the new source in 2018. 

From the Chicago Tribune: 
The agreement to deliver Lake Michigan water to Wauconda was a long time coming. 
In 2012, Wauconda voters approved a $50 million plan to access Lake Michigan water, according to previous Tribune reports. But a deal with the water agency fell through in 2013, following a collapse in negotiations. 
Talks started again in 2014, according to Tribune reports, with Wauconda and the agency reaching a deal early this year to deliver water to both Wauconda and Volo. 
Now, planners are figuring out where to lay about 11 miles of new water pipe, said Darrell Blenniss, the joint water agency's executive director. Read more
The move toward Lake Michigan water is important for Wauconda and Volo. Like many northeastern Illinois communities, these villages currently draw water from deep-rock aquifers that are being drained faster than they can recharge. Lake Michigan offers a more dependable supply for these growing communities. And because groundwater supplies can contain low levels of chemicals that drive up treatment costs, the switch may also prove more cost effective. 

But transitioning aquifer-dependent communities to lake supplies is just one step towards securing long-term access to quality drinking water. Conservation is needed to ensure communities don't pull more from the lake than federal law allows and to relieve some of the pressure on inland supplies.

That's why IISG has teamed up with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning to help communities implement some of the key water supply management strategies laid out in the region's Water2050 plan. For example, we developed the Full-Cost Water Pricing Guidebook to help officials adopt prices that fully reflect water costs and encourage conservation. Margaret Schneemann, our water resource economist, has also helped planning groups and communities adopt lawn watering ordinances to curb inefficient outdoor water use. 

To learn more about these and other efforts, visit our Water Supply page.  


Friday Foto: Windy City winter blues

After this week's blizzard, the thought of warmer winters may sound good to many Chicago residents. But if climate predictions prevail, some winter hazards—everything from road damage to power outages to flooding—may be exacerbated for residents and city managers alike. Read more in our Winter 2013 Helm


Rainbow smelt population: It's complicated

Fisheries managers have long known that the population of rainbow smelt in the Great Lakes is on the decline. Once so abundant that they could be fished out with a pot or strainer, this important prey fish survives today in numbers hovering near historic lows. Numerous causes for the falling population have been proposed, but new research suggests that the population patterns and the forces driving them are more complicated than previously believed.

The 2014 study reveals that number of smelt that survive their first few months has actually been on the rise since 2000. But this increase in hatchlings isn’t translating into more adults, and it is unclear when and why that breakdown is happening. Whatever the cause, the loss of adult rainbow smelt is enough keep the population trending down even as offspring survival improves.

Researchers from USGS, IISG, Purdue University, and the U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, discovered the unexpected increase in offspring after analyzing roughly 40 years of fisheries data using a novel modeling technique.

Fish populations are typically analyzed using a statistical model that that assumes the relationships between different variables—things like number of offspring, number of adults, degree of predatory pressure, and amount of rainfall—remain the same over time. For this study, researchers used statistical tools rarely used by fishery scientists that better reflect the ever-changing nature of the Great Lakes and make it possible to detect more subtle population patterns.

Perhaps most surprising is that offspring survival is on the rise in Lake Michigan despite the fact that their parents are up to 70 mm shorter now than they were in the 1970s.

“We were expecting to see a decrease in productivity because the adults are maturing at smaller sizes, which should mean fewer eggs and less healthy hatchlings,” said Zach Feiner, a PhD student at Purdue University and lead author of the study. “This raises a lot of questions about how well we understand rainbow smelt fisheries.”

Researchers speculate that the drop in the number of adult smelt may actually be allowing hatchlings to thrive. Adult rainbow smelt frequently supplement their diet of zooplankton by dining on their offspring. Fewer adults means fewer predators for juvenile smelt. The need to find food in a lake infested with millions of quagga and zebra mussels that filter out plankton may also be driving adults further out into the lake and away from spawning grounds.

***Photo courtesy of Crystal Lake Mixing Project. 


Website of the week: Decision tool helps planners steer clear of tipping points

A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy. 

For community planners, balancing community growth and environmental health can be a challenge. Putting down roads, building along waterways, or converting prairies to farmland puts stress on local ecosystems—sometimes so much that it can trigger rapid and potentially irreversible shifts in how they function. Fortunately, Tipping Points and Indicators gives watershed planning groups and others the information they need to avoid these tipping points while still meeting community needs. 

The web tool uses the latest watershed research and cutting-edge technology to show planners how close their watershed is to known tipping points and what the watershed will look like if land use decisions continue "business as usual." Planners can also test how developing more in one location or restoring habitats in another moves ecosystems closer to or further from tipping points. With help from a Sea Grant facilitator, planners can use these interactive maps and simulators—along with recommended policies, ordinances, and outreach efforts—to prevent aquatic ecosystems from being degraded beyond repair. 

Since it was launched in 2013, Tipping Points and Indicators has undergone many design and feature updates inspired by months of pilot testingLarger maps and detailed legends that toggle on and off give users a closer look at their watershed and make information on characteristics like stream quality and land cover types more accessible. Users can also easily track how proposed land use changes will effect ecosystem health with updates to the planning simulators. 

To learn more about the tool and see key features in action, watch this introductory video created by the IISG team leading the project. 

Tipping Points and Indicators was developed in collaboration with Purdue University, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota Duluth, University of Windsor, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystem Research, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, NOAA, and the Sea Grant Great Lakes Network. Funding for the four-year project comes from NOAA and EPA. 


In the news: A new pollution worry for Lake Michigan

It's been about a month since research showing that southern Lake Michigan is littered with synthetic microfibers hit news stands. The results set Lake Michigan apart from the other lakes and raise questions about the impact of these fibers on the food web. Perhaps more importantly, they suggest that understanding and combating plastic pollution in the lakes may be even harder than expected. 

From the Chicago Tribune:
Reducing or eliminating plastic microfibers could prove to be a tougher goal to achieve, in part because they are found in a much wider variety of consumer goods. A single fleece jacket can shed 1,900 fibers every time it's washed, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.  
Short of abandoning synthetic fabrics and returning to natural materials such as cotton and wool, it is unclear what can be done to reduce the constant flow of microfibers into the environment. Some researchers have suggested that manufacturers study whether filters could be added to washing machines, similar to the lint traps in clothes dryers. 
Conventional sewage treatment screens out large pieces of trash and relies on microorganisms to break down bacteria. The century-old process helped eradicate cholera and other waterborne diseases in the U.S. but leaves nonorganic plastic untouched. Microfibers and microbeads end up floating along with treated wastewater pumped into rivers and lakes.  
While most of the Chicago area's wastewater flows toward the Mississippi River instead of into Lake Michigan, plenty of other cities discharge treated sewage into the Great Lakes. Because plastic pollution doesn't break down, what scientists are finding represents the steady accumulation of waste during the past 60 years.  
Plastics manufacturers said they merely make the raw materials and that it is up to clothing-makers or water treatment officials to find ways to reduce pollution. Read more
Read more about the 2013 survey of southern Lake Michigan and its early results in our latest Helm