Algae growing under Lake Erie ice spur dead zones


The Great Lakes are difficult to study during the winter. It’s cold, the ice is thick and there probably isn’t much going on under there, right?


Clarkson University biologist Michael Twiss and other Great Lakes scientists have discovered there is a lot going on under the ice.

“When I was working up in Canada, I won a grant to use the coast guard vessel to study for a week,” Twiss said.  “I wanted to use it as late in the season as possible, which was November. We found a lot of interesting stuff. “

Among the things he discovered is a high concentration of algae in Lake Erie during the winter. That’s unlike spring when there are almost no algae present.

Environment Canada and Canadian Coast Guard personnel recover a sediment trap from an icebreaker on an ice-covered Lake Erie in February 2010. Sediment traps are placed on the bottom of a lake to measure the how much algae sink to the bottom. In this case, algae are thriving in winter below ice. Photo by Michael Twiss, Clarkson University

And it is an important discovery because algae growth has been linked to the creation of Lake Erie dead zones devoid of oxygen.

The Canadian Coast Guard provides Twiss and his team with an ice breaker. Their research is supported by the New York and Ohio Sea Grant organizations.

Each year the team loads the ice breaker with supplies. Since it is not a vessel normally used to conduct scientific research, they have to bring everything with them, Twiss said.

The journey begins in Amherstburg, Ontario, and ends at Lake Erie’s eastern basin not far from Buffalo. They collect random samples of water throughout the journey, he said.

“The amount of algae in the winter shows that we have to study Lake Erie during the winter time in order to understand it in the summertime,” Twiss said.  “It’s hard because there isn’t any data to compare it to and it takes a while to create a hypothesis. There is almost no data from the lake in the winter time.”

The information is especially important for efforts to shrink the dead zone.

“When the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom of the lake and contributes to the dead zone,” said Jeffrey Reutter, director of the Ohio Sea Grant. “Historically, there is not work done on lakes in winter, simply because information is more difficult to collect. This is new and invaluable information when looking at the dead zone.”

Cornelia Schlenk, the assistant director of the New York Sea Grant, said that agency supports the research because of its strategic plan to improve coastal water quality.

“No one thought about what was happening in the winter, so it’s a really unique project” Schlenk said. “Turns out, the phytoplankton growing in the winter time really does have an effect on the dead zone.”

Just how to stop or reduce the winter bloom is still unknown, Schlenk said. But the research Twiss and his colleagues are doing is getting published and put in the hands of the people who can use it.

But mysteries remain.

“We still need to get a bigger picture,” she said. “We need to know what’s happening in the fall.”

8 thoughts on “Algae growing under Lake Erie ice spur dead zones

  1. Pingback: Mild winter, early runoff spur swirling sediment in Lake Erie | Great Lakes Echo

  2. and the very last thing we need on the Lake Erie western basin is Fermi 3!!! We need to shut down Fermi 2, not let Detroit Edison build another reactor to raise thermal temperatures.

  3. If there are any reporters or someone that knows an investigative journalist or t.v./movie/documentary producer, please tell them about this paradigm shift in science. It would make for great viewing and help to save the Lower Great Lakes. has the answer! Joe Barrett

  4. This is occurring because the ice is being held in place by the ice boom. It is a cumulative effect. The dead zones inevitable but preventable. I wish people people would consider “Ice Boom Theory” as the answer. The disruption of the normal cleansing ice out movement is by far the biggest change to the environment. The resulting build up of waste and the decay that follows is the only possible answer. Please join me in bringing this to national attention and have the ice boom outlawed. My web site has simple language explanations on the biggest problems caused by inhibited ice flow. visit to read more or Google “Joe Barrett Ice Boom” Thank you. JBB

  5. Their most recent study is called “Diatoms abound in ice-covered Lake Erie: An investigation of offshore winter limnology in Lake Erie over the period 2007 to 2010,” and can be found in Volume 38, No. 1, of the Journal of Great Lakes Research, published by Elsevier. All results will be there!

  6. In the Sierra Club Great Lakes office, we’ve been carrying around a jar of Lake Erie “water” for months. It looks just like a jar of bright green tempera paint. And it never settles or separates. Detroit has the region’s largest wastewater treatment plant. Much of Lake Erie’s western basin has algae problems because of us.


  7. What kind of algae? Abundance? Abundance relative to the typical growing season? Any impacts on fish, other aquatic life? How long is this project? When are the results expected?

  8. I read where the larger zooplankton is the best at controlling algae. In one lake, (Culver) they planted predators to get the zooplankton eating fish knocked down (as they were high)and they even planted zooplankton. Viola, no algae, clear water and good fishin! We have too many planktivores from out of town (invasive) and we do have native predators that could control them.

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