Climate And Water Quality Project

Assessing the Effects of Climate-change-induced Extreme Events on Water Quality and Ecology in the Great Lakes

Project Summary

A collaborative research team, supported by the National Science Foundation, will evaluate the land-lake-air feedbacks associated with climate and extreme weather events on Great Lakes communities, industries and the ecosystem.

Key Question:
What are the possible effects of climate-change-induced extreme events on water quality and ecology in the Great Lakes system, and what management strategies will be effective in addressing these changes?

Project Goals:

  • Enhance understanding of expected impacts of climate-change-induced extreme events on water quality and ecology, with the Great Lakes, using Lake Erie as a case study; and
  • Develop a framework for integrating human and biogeochemical controls on water quality, ecology and climate that transcends and integrates across social, economic, ecological, hydrological and geosciences perspectives.

The role of climate change: Climate-change-induced extreme events (e.g., more frequent and intense storms) may cause additional impacts to Great Lakes ecological and socio-economic systems. In the summer and fall of 2011, Lake Erie recreational businesses, residents and visitors discovered first-hand how a record-breaking algal bloom can impact sport fishing, swimming and other activities that contribute to the economic vitality of the region. The connection and feedbacks between the ecological health of Lake Erie, the physical climate, and the socio-economic framework are the central focus of this research project.


The Great Lakes are a vital freshwater resource with chronic water quality problems. Climate-change-induced extreme events are expected to affect the region’s ecosystems and ecosystem services, with impacts on social and economic well-being. Despite mounting evidence of the severity of these issues, knowledge is limited and fragmented about how the climate, ecological, and social systems interact as coupled systems.

Lake Erie water quality issues, particularly high levels of phosphorus, lead to “dead zones” or low oxygen levels in the water. This eutrophication illustrates the complex interactions between natural and human systems. Effectively managing Lake Erie resources and adapting to change is a challenge. In the Great Lakes region, agricultural production and land use change (e.g., increased population, homes and industry near waterways) are major drivers of water quality.

Researchers are gathering data about the increasing intensity of spring storms and their timing relative to agricultural practices, such as fertilizer application. This connection between heavy and more frequent storms, agricultural practices, population, land use and water quality may be a key factor to the increased amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie.

Extreme weather events can influence the choice of agricultural practices. For example, larger storm events can increase use of tile drains, or prolonged drought can increase adoption of irrigation. Land use practices also interact with extreme weather events to impact water quality. The increase of phosphorus has had a negative impact on plants, fish, humans and water quality in western Lake Erie, as well as other areas in the Great Lakes region.

Four Themes

Scientists have been studying the Lake Erie system for many years. This project represents a unique effort by bringing together four themes that provide a holistic view of the system:

  1. Regional (Great Lakes) climate: Extreme events and hydrologic cycle feedbacks
  2. Land use change and water governance
  3. Hydrologic and ecological response
  4. Broader Impacts (outreach and education)

Interactive Timeline of Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie

Principal Investigator
Anna Michalak

Lake Erie News

Weekly Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin:
See the most recent bulletin

NOAA, partners predict severe harmful algal bloom for Lake Erie in 2015

Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) RealTime HAB Tracker

Researcher Anna Michalak interviews about the 2014 Lake Erie Algal Bloom:
“Phosphorus is a big component…”
PBS NewsHour, The Rundown Video

“Creating perfect storms for massive blooms…”

NSF, NOAA and Other Scientists Predicted Algal Blooms, and more Extreme Weather Events
2014 HAB forecast

EcoFore-Lake Erie project recommendations

Featured Publications

Climate and Water Quality Photographs