Month: November 2019

Blue-Green Algae Documented In Superior’s Canadian Waters – A First?

A picture of Lake Superior surface water some 35 km/21 mi. east of Thunder Bay on September 20th. (Photo: Infosuperior.com)

Green Patches Stretch Offshore

On the evening of September 19th, a boater some 35 km/22 mi. east of Thunder Bay noticed green patches stretching far out into the open waters of the lake. The boater noted water temperature at 15 degrees Celsius or 59 degrees Fahrenheit. The next morning marked the third day of unusually calm conditions on Lake Superior and a kayaker in the same area, noted the same unfamiliar sight: patches of green on the surface of Superior’s waters. 

The kayaker first observed the green patches in a small bay, which area residents refer to as “East Bay.” The green patches continued out into the open waters of Lake Superior to a distance of at least a couple of miles from shore. In the early afternoon of the same day, green patches covered more of this same area. They were also observed in an adjacent small bay, referred to by locals as “North Bay.” By late afternoon, green patche coverage had also increased in the open waters of Superior.


In the late afternoon on September 20th a scum covered the inshore area of “North Bay” to a distance of approximately 50 meters, or 54 yards, from shore. (Photo: Infosuperior.com)

The late afternoon situation in North Bay was intense, with several extensive green patches. Additionally, a surface scum covered the entire inshore area of the bay, out to approximately 50 m/54 yd. from shore. A thick line of dark scum, perhaps a foot in width and less than a foot from the water’s edge, ran along the sand on the bay’s shoreline.


Algae sample collected from Lake Superior on September 20th. Photo taken under the microscope. (Photo: Infosuperior.com)

Testing Confirms Cyanobacteria (Blue-green Algae)

The kayaker collected a sample of the green material which was sent to Lakehead University for identification. Testing determined that the material was dominated by a genus of cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) called Dolichiospermum. 

Next, the sample was tested for toxicity. An enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test showed microcystin toxin levels were lower than the drinking water threshold. In lay terms, test one came back positive for cyanobacteria, test two came back negative for toxicity. 

To the best of Infosuperior’s knowledge, this event is the first documented incident of a cyanobacteria bloom in the Canadian waters of Lake Superior. Government environment and health agencies were notified about the situation.


Algae extended into the open waters of Lake Superior, even into unprotected waters well beyond the island in the distance, which is approximately 2 km. / 1 mi. from shore. (Photo: Infosuperior.com)

Clear Water Returns

The next morning, on September 21st, waters in the area, including East Bay, North Bay and the open lake, were relatively calm and extremely clear. Beach sand was clean and there was no sign of the scum, which had lined the shoreline the previous day.


Material from the surface of Lake Superior – September 20th. (Photo: Infosuperior.com)

Algae Briefly

Algae are simple aquatic plants without roots, stems or leaves and with primitive reproduction methods. Algae ranges in size from microscopic, or microalgae, to macroalgae, large seaweed that can be over 30 m./100 ft. in length. Cyanobacteria fall within the microalgae size. Most microalgae flourish by harvesting sunlight and a few nutrients, like phosphorous and nitrogen. 

Algae are a natural part of the ecosystem and the foundation of the aquatic food chain. They are primary producers that support fisheries in both inland waters and oceans; however, Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) are not generally eaten by other aquatic organisms.

Algae blooms usually occur in late summer or fall. Blooms can occur naturally in the absence of any human influences and are even noted in the journals of early explorers. Alexander MacKenzie noted such an occurrence in the seventeen hundreds on Lake of the Woods; however, today’s large-scale nuisance algae blooms like those experienced on Lake Erie and Lake Winnipeg are not “natural.” Nutrient enrichment from humans contributes significantly to these types of algae growth. Phosphorus and Nitrogen are the primary nutrients contributing to increased blooms, and they can enter waterways in surface runoff from sources such as lawn and agriculture fertilizers, soap, and sewage.

Algae blooms are a complex subject. A bloom can include many species and even variants within species. Cyanobacteria blooms, are of particular concern due to their ability to produce several toxins. These toxins can damage liver tissue and/or the brain and can be lethal to animals, including pets and humans. Cyanobacteria can also cause skin irritation, along with taste and odour issues.


A green patch in the Canadian waters of Lake Superior on a hazy September 20th morning. A sample was collected and examined under the microscope and determined to be blue-green algae. Algae coverage in this area expanded throughout the day. (Photo: Infosuperior.com)

Algae in the U.S. Waters of Superior

Algae blooms in Lake Superior are rare, and until recently, were almost unknown. In the last few years however, algae blooms have been observed in the U.S. waters of Superior. The New York Times link below provides an overview of this situation. Other links provide information about algae blooms in lakes large and small, including Lake Baikal in Russia. Like Superior, Lake Baikal is known for its clear waters and holds an almost spiritual significance to Russians. Due to its extreme depth, Lake Baikal holds more water than all of the Great Lakes combined.

Reporting Blue-green Algae in Ontario

If you observe blue-green algae in Ontario call the Spills Action Centre, 1-866-MOETIPS (6638477), TTY: 1-855-889-5775.

Local Algae Information:

After reporting any suspected algae blooms to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, through the Spills Action Centre, local residents looking for additional information on blooms are encouraged to contact us. Our research team offers a wide range of expertise including phytoplankton identification.

Lake Superior Research Center (contact via infosuperiorhub@gmail.com) – offering educational information on phytoplankton blooms in Northwestern Ontario. 

U.S. Algae Information:

More Photos:

View More Pictures of the September 20th Situation Described in this Article.

After reporting any suspected algae blooms residents looking for additional information on blooms are encouraged to contact us. Our research team offers a wide range of expertise including phytoplankton identification.

Links:

August 29, 2018 NYTimes Article: Lake Superior Algae Raises Concerns

June 3, 2019 Infosuperior Article by Nathan Wilson: Classifying Lakes: Eutrophication in the Boreal Forest Ecozone

November 29, 2016 Infosuperior Article: It Could Never Happen Here

Province of Ontario Information About Blue-green Algae

Learn About Research Carried Out By Lakehead University Doctoral Student Nathan Wilson at Cloud Lake Near Thunder Bay

Globe and Mail Article Updated April 3, 2018: Algae and Property Values

September 10th, 2019 Waukesha Patch Article: Invasive Algae Found in Two Wisconsin Lakes

Environment and Climate Change Canada Algae Identification Field Guide

Northern Kentucky University Algae Field Guide




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Lake Connectivity: Impacts on Lake Superior

This is the second in a series of articles about eutrophication that have been contributed by Nathan Wilson, a PhD candidate of Lakehead University. The previous article can be found here: Classifying Lakes: Eutrophication in the Boreal Forest Ecozone. It goes over basic terminology for classifying lakes, which is used in the following article that examines how changes in the Lake Superior watershed are impacting Lake Superior itself.

We like to believe that Lake Superior is unaffected by human impacts, especially in comparison to other Great Lakes. Unfortunately, this may not be so true. In fact, Lake Superior has a long history of human impacts from legacy issues like the industrial revolution and the collapse of commercial fisheries, to more recent issues of phytoplankton blooms, high water levels, and reduced ice cover. Some historical, yet often overlooked, human impacts on Lake Superior include the Long Lac and Ogoki diversions and the damming of Lake Nipigon and the Nipigon River to provide more water to the Great Lakes. The subsequent sea lamprey introduction, which contributed to the near-loss of the lake trout fishery in Lake Superior, is a good example of how alterations in one area can have resulting impacts in connected systems. Humans altering the connectivity within Lake Superior, as well as the Great Lakes as a whole, has had significant and long-lasting impacts.

Lake Superior Ability to Buffer Against Impacts Overestimated

In the 1980’s, degraded environmental conditions in Lake Superior led to the establishment of four areas of concern (AOC) – Thunder Bay, Nipigon Bay, Jackfish Bay and Peninsula Harbour, as well as the St. Marys River at Sault Ste. Marie. Today, the historic impacts of direct industrial related degradation to Lake Superior have for the most part been addressed; however, it is no longer possible to restore the ecosystem to its former function in areas like Thunder Bay where ecosystems, such as coastal wetlands within the harbour, were filled in to allow for industrial development. This is a permanent loss of ecosystem function within Lake Superior that was justified due to the assumption that Lake Superior’s vast size gave it the inherent ability to buffer change.  A more recent indication that human impacts continue to afflict Lake Superior would be last year’s (2018) extensive cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) bloom at the Duluth Harbour on the southwest shore of Lake Superior. Because Lake Superior is an oligotrophic lake, with minimal nutrients and productivity, the observation of cyanobacteria, which is normally associated with higher nutrient contributions, was unexpected.  

Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake by surface area at 82,000 km2, with an average depth of 147 m and a maximum depth of 406 m, and holds around 12,000km3 of freshwater. It takes approximately 191 years for a drop of water entering Lake Superior today to exit into Lake Huron via the St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste. Marie. Lake Superior’s catchment area, or watershed, is 127,000km2this includes the two diversions, Ogoki and Long Lac, on the north shore. The Lake receives water from about 200 rivers around the basin, the largest of which include the Nipigon River, St. Louis River, White River, Pic River, and Kaministiquia River. Lake Superior is classified as a dimictic oligotrophic lake. It is home to more than 80 different fish species, although it has fewer dissolved nutrients and is less productive when compared to the other Great Lakes. 

We assume the massive size and volume of water in Lake Superior and it’s oligotrophic characteristics buffer the lake from small changes resulting in major impacts, but there is an emerging shift in our understanding of Lake Superior’s sensitivity to change. The scientific community has shown that Lake Superior is warming faster than any other great lake. This is very important as the temperature has major impacts on a number of other ecological and environmental factors such as fish growth and reproduction. Dr. Jay Austin of the Large Lake Observatory in Duluth has shown that Lake Superior is actually very sensitive to small changes. Dr. Austin’s work focuses on the long-term effects of climate change on lakes. Much of his recent work has specifically looked at the variation of ice cover on Lake Superior and seasonal temperature changes. 

Understanding Nutrient Contribution in Lake Superior Important

If Lake Superior is, in fact, more sensitive than previously thought, it is important to re-examine the state of lakes and rivers that feed into Lake Superior. There are a large number of headwater lakes in Lake Superior’s watershed that are connected via rivers to the lake proper. If there is a contamination issue within a headwater lake, eventually that water will be transported to Lake Superior. Although it is a massive lake, we are already seeing signs and symptoms that inland problems are potentially causing problems for Lake Superior. Because of the connection of aquatic systems and the fact that Lake Superior receives and provides water for such a massive area, it is essential that we pay attention and take responsibility for the small inland lakes and water systems that may be at risk.  

This past summer, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment Conservation and Parks (OMOECP) reported several cyanobacteria blooms, in lakes within Lake Superior’s watershed. At least one of these blooms was confirmed to be producing cyanotoxins. In 2012 and 2018, on the south shore of Lake Superior, the U.S. waters around Duluth experienced cyanobacteria blooms, something few thought possible. The blooms were the result of significant rain events in the area, described as 500-year rain events by the U.S. National Weather Service. Infosuperior also reported a cyanobacteria bloom in the northern waters of Lake Superior after a rainy fall season this year. As previously discussed in Classifying Lakes: Eutrophication in the Boreal Forest Ecozone, increased precipitation events result in more nutrients from the surrounding catchment area being picked up by surface water and eventually deposited into Lake Superior.

Unfortunately, because cyanobacteria blooms in Lake Superior were not anticipated, there was no equipment in place to record the exact conditions leading up to and during the blooms in Lake Superior’s south shore. Now researchers such as Dr. Robert Sterner from the Large Lakes Observatory along with his Ph.D. student Kaitlyn Reinl are working to understand the land-lake connection and where the bloom cells originate. There have been other reports of nuisance blooms around Lake Superior specifically of didymosphenia geminata (AKA Didymo or rock snot), a diatom that can have significant ecological impacts as it forms dense mats on the bottom of rivers. Didymo blooms can get so bad that they displace fish from the river. 

There are differences around Lake Superior when it comes to the ecological inputs and potential contaminants that are transported from the watershed to the lake. If you have travelled around Lake Superior you may have noticed a significant difference in the abundance of human development between the northern and southern catchment areas. There is very little agricultural development along the northern region of the lake; however, around Duluth and the St. Louis River in the south, the human development, both urban and agricultural, increases. As previously mentioned, human developments are significant sources of anthropogenic eutrophication driving nutrients. It should be noted that although reports of cyanobacteria and other algae blooms appear to be increasing, it is important to acknowledge there is not enough data to verify the cause of the increase. Northwestern Ontario is an understudied region with respect to eutrophication and cyanobacteria blooms and as people become more educated and conscientious about ecological health there is an increasing likelihood that reporting from the public will increase.


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GLOS Releases Strategic Plan 2020-2025

Observing system buoy in Saginaw Bay. June 2010. Smart Great Lakes Initiative, part of the new Great Lakes Observing System Strategic Plan 2020-2025, is about connecting people to the information they need through the use of technology and advanced data collection.

On Tuesday, October 22, 2019, in a seminar at the Lake Superior Conference room, Chief Executive Officer of Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) Kelli Paige announced the release of the GLOS Smart Great Lakes: Strategic Plan 2020-2025.

You can view the new GLOS strategic plan here: Smart Great Lakes: Strategic Plan 2020-2025

Infosuperior attended the announcement via webinar. Kelli Paige discussed the Great Lakes Observing System’s funding and efforts to work within those realities through internal evaluations. She explained that changes in the plan revolve around how they accomplish their activities rather than what GLOS does.

According to Kelli, the new strategic plan involves moving away from membership and towards a partner engagement system with grantees, clients and subscribers. The goal is to create a coalition that leads to collaborative planning.

GLOS News Release:  Great Lakes Observing System launches the Smart Great Lakes Initiative


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Water Levels a Concern as Fall/Winter Storm Season Begins

Plaques and drift wood had been displaced up to the tree line at Neys Provincial Park this summer. High water levels in Lake Superior and throughout the Great Lakes have resulted in major impacts to lakeshores, which may be the new normal as climate change leads to increased precipitation in the region. Photo: Infosuperior

Great Lakes water levels have been making headlines all year, and October was no different. Wet conditions since September, 2018, have resulted in record high water levels in Lake Superior. Record levels were reached in almost all the Great Lakes this summer. Lake Ontario levels, in particular, led to deviations in the IJC Plan 2014 for the regulation of outflows by the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board. These deviations have been maintained throughout the summer. Although Lake Ontario levels have been declining, Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior are still experiencing very high levels and those water levels, combined with high winds, led to huge waves and further erosion in October.

The Headlines for October

Damage from Lake Superior was particularly bad in Duluth and Thunder Bay, catching the attention of various news outlets. MPRNews’s Paul Huttner reported that wind gusting up to 68 mph / 109 km/hr on Oct 21, 2019, lead to flooding and damage to parts of the Lakewalk in Duluth, MN; however, the newly constructed section of the Lakewalk held-up well according to Duluth News Tribune’s coverage by Andee Erickson. Despite the damages sustained, residents interviewed by Kare11 news appeared to be keeping their heads up and Star Tribune even posted images of surfers taking advantage of the waves. The same day, 45 mph / 74 km/hr winds and 35-40 mm / 1.4-1.6 in. of rain in Thunder Bay lead to flooding and erosion that resulted in the closure of a popular boardwalk and trail at Mission Marsh, as reported by the CBC.

In Chicago, damage from Lake Michigan is expected to require billions of dollars in prevention and repair efforts according to an article by Jay Koziarz of Vox Media Curbed: Chicago. Travelling towards Lake Huron through the Straits of Mackinac, further damages were apparent. MLive’s Emily Bingham reported on October 24, 2019 that a local tour guide had noticed that the foundation of the Waugoshance Lighthouse had begun to erode. The historic lighthouse’s foundation is in danger of complete collapse if mitigation isn’t attempted. Lake Huron also caused thousands of dollars in damages to sidewalks and other public spaces along Alpena’s lakefront with waves up to 7 feet tall according to Alpena News’s Steve Schulwitz.

Officials Responding to Impacts

In response to the extensive damage that has been observed across the Great Lakes this summer, the IJC’s Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee with the IJC’s  International Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River Board (ILOSLRB) and the International Lake Superior Board of Control (ILSBC) are reaching out to landowners and businesses that have been directly impacted. They are asking those affected to fill out a survey and/or provide images documenting how high water levels have impacted them: Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Shoreline Landowners and Businesses 2019 High Water Impacts Questionnaire.

In a news release on October 30, 2019, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy announced that they would expedite the permit process required for any alterations on shoreline property. Officials hope to cut permitting times from several months down to days, where there is imminent danger to structures, Michael Kransz reports for MLive. A new webpage was also created to help property owners with the permitting process and provide a centralized area for high water level information: Michigan.gov/MiWaters.


Water Levels Resource Links:


Government of Canada – Great Lakes Water Levels and Related Data

Government of Ontario – Flood Forecasting and Warning Program

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Great Lakes Information

International Joint Commission Boards, Studies and Committee

International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

International Lake Superior Board of Control

International Niagara Board of Control


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Decommissioning Nuclear Power in the Great Lakes

Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Lake County, Ohio next to Lake Erie. Photo: First Energy Corp. Flikr

In a two-year project titled Decommissioning Practices of Nuclear Power Facilities in the Great Lakes Basin, the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (GLWQB) will assess the potential environmental impacts associated with decommissioning all remaining nuclear plants in the Great Lakes basin. By 2020, the GLWQB aims to complete all three phases of this effort: an informational report, a consultant’s report and outcomes of an expert workshop. These three components will be used to develop actionable recommendations and advice for Canadian and U.S. governments that will reduce the risk of releasing radioactive material into the Great Lakes during decommissioning.

In a news release on October 16, 2019, the GLWQB announced that the International Joint Commission had approved the publication of the GLWQB’s informational background report, the first phase in their assessment of the potential environmental impacts of decommissioning nuclear power facilities in the Great Lakes basin. The background report describes the current status of nuclear plants in the basin, radioactive waste storage techniques and applicable regulatory regimes.

You can view the Water Quality Board’s informational report on nuclear power in the Great Lakes here: Nuclear Power Facilities in the Great Lakes Basin: Compendium of information related to the current status and decommissioning of Great Lakes nuclear power facilities to support the development of a Great Lakes Water Quality Board report

An accompanying GIS story Map is available here: Nuclear Power Facilities in the Great Lakes Basin


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