U-M CIGLR's Research Staff Provide Critical Information on Lake Erie’s Harmful Algal Blooms During COVID-19 Pandemic
Stakeholders in western Lake Erie rely on the University of Michigan’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) staff to provide critical information on harmful algal blooms (HABs), helping them to deliver high-quality drinking water to surrounding communities. In partnership with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) in Ann Arbor, CIGLR staff monitor HAB conditions and provide data that help stakeholders such as public water facilities in western Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron, use these natural resources safely.
This essential work, like most aspects of our lives, required major adjustments and creativity during 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The challenge of performing this work under the pandemic began in earnest with planning. To protect the health and safety of our HABs research team during COVID-19, the field season was delayed by a few weeks to make certain that preparations and procedures were ready. “When the state of Michigan emerged from the stay-at-home order, our talented and dedicated research team was eager to begin working in the laboratory and the field to provide information to stakeholders,” said CIGLR Assistant Research Scientist, Dr. Casey Godwin. “Fortunately, the CIGLR HABs team is a ‘well-oiled machine,’ and are accustomed to working together to plan complex field and laboratory operations.”
The 2020 HABs season required intense preparation, coordination, and flexibility by all team members. The team worked closely with NOAA and the University to ensure that all safety measures were met or exceeded in the laboratory and field. “Our HABs team worked very hard to overcome logistical challenges to make sure that our critical research continued in 2020,” said Ashley Burtner, a Research Laboratory Specialist Associate and seasoned 10-year veteran of the CIGLR team. In addition to leading pre-season planning, Ashley heads up laboratory analyses, trains newer staff, and compiles the HAB monitoring data to stakeholders immediately after the samples are processed.
“The sheer volume of what our team accomplishes over the summer is a huge effort. Even though our field season was shortened to 16 sampling trips on Lake Erie, it takes an entire team to process all of the samples. Adjusting to the new safety protocols took a little time to get used to; but, our team is so amazing and we all adapted to our new distinct schedules and managed to get the work done carefully and on time. It is pretty special to be a part of this team and help contribute this critical information to the public,” said Burtner.
“Even though we all have defined roles in the lab or field, our team is extremely versatile,” said Christine Kitchens, Aquatic Ecology Research Technician. Kitchens is responsible for analyzing samples for phycocyanin, a critical measure for knowing how much cyanobacteria, the organisms capable of producing HABs, are in the lakes.
Each season the team adapts to changing conditions, such as short-term delays due to rough weather, but Christine noted that, “those changes felt much more disruptive this year than during previous seasons due to all of the restrictions and maintaining safety protocols. But, knowing that we have such a strong, resilient team eased away much of that stress. We all had to think differently about managing our time when in our labs and really focus on accomplishing all of our tasks, as our next shift might not be until the following week. We’re a family, we’re gracious to one another, and I’m so thankful for that,” said Kitchens.
Out on the water, HAB monitoring events are typically carried out by a crew consisting of several scientists and a boat captain. Everyone helps on deck and prepares the large sampling equipment and instruments. But, in order to maximize distancing, the crew size had to be scaled back to the bare minimum.
“This season, we were generally limited to one or two scientists and one boat captain for each field sampling,” said Holly Kelchner, Aquatic Ecology Research Analyst. Holly continued, “Even though it seemed like we were restricted in a lot of areas, the talents of our team were utilized in the best way possible…I feel extremely proud of what our team has accomplished this season for our Great Lakes and Lake Erie community.”
“This group is dedicated and they know what is at stake with collecting and analyzing these samples,” said Glenn Carter, Benthic Ecology Research Technician whose responsibilities in the field included sampling aboard a vessel on Saginaw Bay. “Our team wants to prevent another water crisis comparable to what happened in 2014 to Toledo, Ohio. If we can help provide a warning, then we are doing something right.” More than 400,000 Toledo residents went without safe drinking water for three days in 2014, when unsafe levels of the harmful algal toxin microcystin were detected in treated drinking water drawn from Lake Erie.
With everyone working from home, communication became one of the greatest strengths of the team. Benthic Ecology Research Technician Andrew Camilleri said, “We felt like the 2020 HABs project was managed extremely well. If we didn’t feel comfortable, a new plan was made and our managers would work through it with us. Feeling comfortable and safe helped our team move forward through the season. Everyone did their best to communicate and work together through any challenges.”
Environmental Observing Systems Engineer Hayden Henderson joined CIGLR just prior to the pandemic. “Three weeks after starting my new job with CIGLR, we were all moved to our home offices,” said Henderson. “I was entering this huge project with a bunch of people I had only had a handful of interactions with. I was still getting to know everyone’s role and it was difficult to be communicating with people through email and cell phone on such an important project that had so many moving pieces.”
Henderson works closely with CIGLR engineers Russ Miller and Heidi Purcell to support NOAA buoys that deliver real-time information from Lake Erie, even when crews cannot get out on the lake to take samples. Reflecting on his work to ensure buoys were serviced and operating before deployment, Henderson said, “There were more hidden challenges that appeared after we were granted permission to return to work. Supply chains worldwide were backed up; so, it was really hard to get the materials and reagents we needed to do the final preparations before buoy deployment. However, working through these trials as a team was my favorite part of this season. Our team was able to turn on a dime, work safely, and produce essential information for our stakeholders and maintain critical forecasts.”
“Our researchers held several calls and virtual meetings with public water systems and water quality managers to assess where to direct our buoy deployments and monitoring efforts,” said Stakeholder Engagement Specialist Devin Gill. “The team knew we would be limited in our HAB monitoring efforts this year as compared with previous years. So, we needed to prioritize which monitoring sites we really wanted to get to, and the data that was most important to collect.”
While a typical year finds the CIGLR HABs team spending most of their time in the laboratory and on the lakes, 2020 required that they adapt much of their tasks to work from home.
General Programmer/Analyst Joeseph Smith noted, “As a programmer, my job is to get all of the real-time data published on the web as soon as possible. I coordinate with all 'arms' of the team, so, working from home and lacking that face-to-face interaction made that task somewhat difficult. However, this HABs team really clicks and coordination got easier and easier as the season progressed. This crew is fantastic!”
Biogeochemistry Laboratory Analyst Kelly McCabe said, “As the newest member of the team, I have yet to start in-person work. With only a limited number of people allowed in the field and lab for hands-on work, my coding skills using Python and Matlab were put to use on past HABs data and the 2019 Lake Erie Cooperative Science and Monitoring (CSMI) dataset. I’ve been reaching out to colleagues from the across the lakes to obtain data files that will help us better understand phosphorus dynamics throughout Lake Erie.”
Reflecting on a challenging but successful HAB season, NOAA GLERL Research Ecologist, Reagan Errera said, “This HABs team is a phenomenal group of scientists. Everyone gives 110% all of the time. I have never worked with a group of individuals who love what they do and want to do it. They are dedicated to providing the best-quality information to our Great Lakes stakeholders. This team is motivated, they have great attitudes, and they have the utmost respect for each other. They are extremely skilled at their piece of the job and I am lucky to work alongside them. The future is bright with this team.”
See the real-time data from CIGLR and NOAA GLERL here: Water Quality and Buoy Data
Read more about the University of Michigan’s CIGLR research in its 2020 Annual Magazine: Ripple Effect