Answers in the ice

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More than 20 research centers in the United States and Canada participated in the Winter Grab, an all-out push to get valuable ice samples of the Great Lakes.  (Photo by Paul Ericson)

Last month, ice fishermen on Lake Ontario’s Bay of Quinte in Canada were surprised to find a group of people in flotation suits near their regular fishing spots. They did not carry fishing poles and tackle, but instead were armed with augers, saws and an assortment of scientific tools.

After drilling three times into the ice and cutting through the remaining pieces to create a larger hole, the group lowered a sonde, a device that  logs temperature, dissolved oxygen levels and other conditions, into the water. They also took water samples from different depths and used a fine mesh net to collect microorganisms.

Asking the odd group if they had caught any of Quinte’s famous walleye pike yet, the ice fishermen learned the newcomers were not fishermen, but researchers.

“They were curious, which is understandable. We’re in these flashy orange suits with this curious equipment,” recalls Marguerite Xenopoulos, an ecosystem ecologist with Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, who was with the group that day. “So I think it’s pretty natural to ask: ‘Why are you on the ice if you aren’t fishing?’”

Xenopoulos and her colleagues were far from the only research teams who likely faced questions from curious anglers. Last month, more than 20 college, state and federal research centers in the United States and Canada participated in the unprecedented Winter Grab, an all-out push to get valuable ice samples of the Great Lakes. 

Experts say this effort will go a long way to filling research gaps in the biological and chemical ecosystems of the lakes, which has a widespread effect on the condition of the water system, a health and economic driver.

“Think about all (the lakes) do for Rochester,” says Jim Howe, a senior policy advisor for freshwater at The Nature Conservancy. “They give us reliable drinking water, they influence our weather – from cooler summers to lake effect snow – and give us water for irrigation and industry. 

“The outdoor recreation economy in New York alone is enormous. From a few years ago, the number was $34 billion in consumer spending, 300,000-plus jobs, all related to outdoor recreation.”

This Winter Grab research push is also more important than ever because ice coverage on the Great Lakes is shrinking likely due to climate change. Without study, it may not be possible to know the environmental, economic and residential impacts that the changing face of winter has on the Great Lakes.

 Satellite picture of the Great Lakes
(Image: NOAA CoastWatch)

A need to preserve

The Great Lakes is the largest freshwater system in the world. They contain  5,400 cubic miles, or 20 percent, of Earth’s surface fresh water. And, experts are quick to point out, what stresses one part of the lake system will end up affecting the rest.

“The Great Lakes really are this incredible resource, right here in our backyard, and right now they’re under a lot of stress,” Howe says. “Lake Ontario is the most stressed of all of them.”

This is because Lake Ontario is downstream from the other lakes. As the last stop before entering the St. Lawrence River, it has an important responsibility to maintain specific water levels to avoid flooding cities like Montreal along the waterway.

Researchers in Marguerite Xenopoulos’ group at the Bay of Quinte (Photo: Nolan Pearce)

However, regulations to maintain water levels has caused wetlands, where 70 percent of Great Lakes fish spawn, to lose biodiversity.

“In some cases, you see keystone species disappearing from the area,” Howe says, citing the now rare Lake Ontario muskrat.

In addition to animals, humans benefit from wetlands as well, acting as flood preventers during high-water events.

“They will absorb water like a sponge and slowly release it back into the environment,” Howe says. “And they are also filters because when water enters a wetland it slows down, the sediment drops out, and the plants will take up the pollution from the water.”

These two factors, along with recreational activities, provide significant monetary benefits as well. A study of the 8,000 acres of wetlands upstream from Boston by the Army Corps of Engineers revealed $65 million in benefits. Lake Ontario and the opening of the St. Lawrence have 64,000 acres of wetlands. Howe calculates the ecosystem could be giving a potential half-a-billion dollars in benefits.

Irondequoit Bay (Photo: Jacob Schermerhorn)

Wetlands could be facing yet another challenge, as warmer temperatures in winter could increase vegetation development, resulting in a loss of water, something Howe has warned against before.

Locally, the entire perimeter of Irondequoit Bay is a Class I wetland, the highest level of protection in New York State. It also regularly freezes over. While it was not selected for a Winter Grab ice sample, the bay could share similarities with some of them.

“These smaller bays, like the Bay of Quinte, have a delicate ecological balance. Winter is an important factor in that, we are learning,” Xenopoulos says.

Gathering data

In total, the Winter Grab sampled over 40 locations across all five Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair. Some teams snowmobiled or snowshoed out on the ice. Others collected samples off piers or in water treatment centers, while still others joined polar-class icebreaker ships with the U.S. Coast Guard.

“Between the different expertises and number of data points needed to get really useful information, it’s impossible for one group to do it all on their own,” says Casey Godwin, an assistant research scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) and the University of Michigan. “One of the great things about (Winter Grab) is it came together in a real grassroots way. Everyone agrees it’s important work.”

Ted Ozersky, the project leader and main driving force of Winter Grab and  a lake biologist at the University of Minnesota Duluth, first brought up the issue of winter research gaps during discussions with other CIGLR experts in 2019. Due to a long-held belief that winter months mean biological dormancy, as well as logistical difficulties, almost all Great Lakes sampling occurred between May and October, leaving a large gap in historical data.

Godwin specializes in studying the base of food webs; in the Great Lakes, these are algae and tiny animal-like organisms called zooplankton. He says that scientists are aware that some algae and zooplankton can survive or even thrive with the limited oxygen and light under the ice, but scientists do not have the proper data to measure the full extent of their abilities.

“Some of the physics are better known, but the biology in particular is poorly documented in winter. Are nutrients being regenerated from the sediments and used by organisms? Is algal growth higher during the winter when the water column is fully mixed? Which zooplankton species are reproducing during this period?” says Warren Currie, a food webs and ecosystem science researcher at the Great Lakes Laboratory for Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences in Canada.

Warren Currie’s team collected samples at Hamilton Harbour. (Photo: Nolan Pearce)

The Winter Grab will also allow scientists to study larger lake animals as well. Since the 1980s, through a process known as oligotrophication, all the Great Lakes, except Erie, have fewer nutrients entering from the watershed, causing populations of plankton and smaller “forage fishes” to decrease. Recreational fishing species produced by fish hatcheries, particularly the Chinook salmon in Lake Ontario, have decreased in stock accordingly. Studying wintertime tendencies could help understand this issue better.

There are also theories that wintertime activity can increase harmful algae blooms, which are rapidly increasing in the population of algae. Without the proper nutrient cycle, algae could expand without issue.

“If the ice isn’t there, we could see bigger blooms,” Xenopoulos says, who helped build an early warning system for harmful algae blooms on the north shore.

These events, also known as blue-green algae, can prove toxic to plants and organisms in the water. The increased plant coverage can block sunlight which depletes oxygen levels and kills other organisms. Aside from poisoning drinking water, swimming in spots with this type of algae can cause skin irritation or breathing difficulties in humans and liver failure or neurological problems in pets.

Researchers at Saginaw Bay (Photo: Nolan Pearce)

In Lake Ontario, Sodus Bay has experienced HAB events periodically since 2010. Farther south, the Finger Lakes, previously clear of blue-green algae, have also struggled with blooms since 2017 and now have them every year. Both the Finger Lakes and Sodus Bay have installed systems to monitor these occurrences.

Winter Grab researchers predict their findings will be submitted for peer review by the end of this year. 

“Good science takes a long time,” says Xenopoulos.

Although more study is needed before proper conclusions can be made, some interesting observations have been made so far. For example, Godwin’s team found that light and photosynthesis processes were occurring at unexpectedly high levels considering the thickness of their ice samples.

“That was already a surprising result,” Godwin says. “Light penetrated further than we were thinking it would.”

Why now?

Based on current climate models, the Winter Grab research is occurring not a moment too soon.

Ice coverage on the Great Lakes has been shrinking since the 1970s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although there is a natural cycle between higher and lower levels due to global climate patterns such as El Nino, data from 1973 to 2020 show that overall ice cover has been declining by 5 percent per decade. Most recently, 2021’s average ice coverage of 30 percent was much lower than the long-term average of 53 percent. 

“We know that due to climate change that the onset of ice cover is now much later in the fall and it is receding earlier in the spring,” Currie says.

Ice levels in 2022 have the potential to be higher than usual due to a polar vortex, a phenomenon linked to climate change. The most recent prior occurrence was in 2014. According to Xenopoulos, weather extremes such as these can affect soil and freeze cycles, further stressing the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Over the long term, however, ice coverage is trending downward. One study found that, from 1973 to 2010, Lake Ontario, which already has less ice than other lakes due to its greater depth, declined the most by 88 percent. Current climate models are not optimistic about potential recovery, meaning if the data is not collected now, scientists might miss their chance to research this topic.

“We felt things were at an ‘all talk, no action’ phase,” Xenopoulos says, referring to the discussions started by Ozensky. “We really should have been doing this years ago. Now we have to race before we lose it all.” 

Currie concurs: “Given the unknowns, we currently don’t know what we are missing with the days of lost ice across the Great Lakes basin.” 

“Going forward, living next to this vast body of water, it puts us in a strong position for a changing world,” Howe says. “We need to do all that we can to maintain the health of this body of water.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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