Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

U-M has a long and prominent history of Great Lakes research

The new U-M Water Center will build on the school's long and prominent history of Great Lakes research, which stretches back more than a century and touches nearly every discipline relating to the prized inland seas.

Early U-M Great Lakes research was mainly concerned with fish and fisheries, but the emphasis began to shift to basic limnology, the scientific study of bodies of freshwater such as lakes, after the 1920s.


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The research program continued to grow and diversify. By the 1960s and '70s, the university had achieved global prominence in Great Lakes research, with special strengths in topics including fisheries, deep-water research/oceanography, geology, and physical and biological limnology. Several seminal works on these topics were produced by U-M researchers during this period.

Throughout most of the 20th century, U-M's pre-eminence in Great Lakes research served as a magnet that attracted other research entities to the Ann Arbor area, making it a hub of Great Lakes research. Often, the university offered these groups space and resources to start their research and encouraged collaborations with U-M researchers.

That tradition can be traced back to Jacob Reighard, who served as director of the U-M Museum of Zoology from 1895 to 1913 and who was among the most prominent of the early Great Lakes researchers. Reighard helped organize the Great Lakes Laboratory of the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, which later became the U.S. Geological Survey's Great Lakes Science Center. Shortly after that, U-M's Carl Hubbs worked with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to found the state's Institute of Fisheries Research, which still exists on campus.

David C. Chandler, former director of the U-M Great Lakes Research Division, examines the camera on the research submersible Star II on Lake Michigan in 1967. (Photo by R. Stephen Schneider)  

In 1945, the U-M regents established the Great Lakes Research Institute for the "encouragement and integration of studies of the physical, chemical, biological and other aspects of the Great Lakes and related areas," according to "A Century of Great Lakes Research at the University of Michigan," by Alfred M. Beeton and R. Stephen Schneider.

Throughout the '50s, studies of the lakes' physical processes — especially currents and water masses and techniques for measuring them — dominated.

By 1960, the institute had grown beyond its administrative and departmental boundaries and was restructured as the Great Lakes Research Division. David Chandler directed the GLRD from 1960-72, a period that marked some of the most productive years for U-M Great Lakes research. Studies of algae and bottom-dwelling plants and animals known as benthos were a central focus of U-M lakes research during that period.

Chandler said at the time that there was a "general recognition that the Great Lakes are essentially small oceans and require oceanographic equipment and methods for their proper study."

Early on, U-M Great Lakes researchers relied largely on rented vessels — often fishing tugs — to get onto the open waters. But as the research program grew and demand for access to the lakes increased, U-M became the first university in the region to purchase and operate its own research vessels.

  U-M's research vessel Inland Seas, seen on Lake Michigan in 1970. This vessel allowed U-M researchers to use the heavy equipment needed to sample the deepest parts of the Great Lakes. (Photo by R. Stephen Schneider)

By the 1960s, the university operated four research vessels, including a Chris Craft yacht and a 114-foot wooden-hulled vessel, the Inland Seas, which was built for the military in World War II and then served the National Park Service for many years as a ferry between Houghton and Isle Royale. As research needs expanded, the university built the R/V Laurentian in 1974. This 80-foot boat was operated as a University National Oceanographic Laboratory System vessel until 2002.

The growth of U-M's Great Lakes research program during the 1960s and '70s was fueled largely by federal grant dollars resulting from the surge in environmental awareness and subsequent environmental legislation, according to an assessment of the program conducted in 2006 with funding from the Office of the Vice President for Research.

The spike in Great Lakes research funding in that period also coincided with environmental studies conducted prior to construction of the Cook Nuclear Plant on the shore of Lake Michigan south of St. Joseph. The Great Lakes Research Division was contracted by the Indiana & Michigan Electric Co. to conduct an environmental assessment of the effects of releasing heated water from the plant into the lake. Many of the published studies became important as baselines for comparison with future changes to come in the Great Lakes.

As its Great Lakes research needs expanded, U-M built the research vessel Laurentian in 1974. This 80-foot boat was operated as a University National Oceanographic Laboratory System vessel until 2002. (Photo by R. Stephen Schneider)  

Pollution in the Great Lakes became a major concern along with the growth of the national environmental movement. U-M publications from the early 1960s dealt with the effects of pollutants on waterfowl, plants and invertebrates in the Detroit River. Nutrient pollution in places like Lake Erie also emerged as a focal point of research, with U-M's A.M. Beeton presenting what has been described as the first coherent hypotheses on the topic at a 1960 scientific meeting — years before the "death" of Lake Erie became a cause célèbre.

Interest turned to atmospheric transport of pollutants in the 1970s. In the 1980s, several U-M researchers addressed polychlorinated biphenyl and hydrocarbon contamination in fish and sediments in the Great Lakes and their tributaries.

Also in the 1980s, fishery research re-emerged as an increasingly important topic. The invasion of the zebra mussel in the late 1980s led to increased attention to research on non-native species. In 1990, U-M's David Jude discovered the first round gobies, a voracious and aggressive fish native to the Caspian and Black seas, in the Great Lakes system.

  The research submersible Star II being prepared for launch in Lake Michigan in 1967. The Star II carried U-M scientists to the deepest parts of Lake Michigan to evaluate its use as a research platform. The idea was later dropped because the submersible was judged to be impractical for use in the lakes. (Photo by R. Stephen Schneider)

Today, the university's Great Lakes research program includes investigators from units across the university, operating at the intersection of the natural, physical and social sciences.

Natural science topics of study include the biology and ecology of fishes, paleontology, invasive species, river/stream ecology, wetland ecology, limnology, environmental health and natural history. Physical sciences and engineering research topics include atmospheric modeling, groundwater/surface water modeling, paleoclimatology, paleolimnology, hydrodynamics and fluid dynamics. Social sciences research related to the lakes include studies of pollution policy, climate policy, water policy, governance, risk assessment, land use law and policy, and urban and regional planning.

Other highlights from U-M's long history of Great Lakes research:

• Reighard's 1893 study of Lake St. Clair, which followed a crash in whitefish populations there, became a model for lake and stream surveys emphasizing the measurement of environmental factors affecting fish and associated biota. Similar studies that followed "represented the first serious investigation of the Great Lakes and established a philosophy and design of lake survey that was to be followed in the state for the next several decades," U-M's Chandler noted more than half a century later.

• In 1900, Reighard led an effort to have the Board of Regents establish a biological station to promote the study of plants and animals in their natural habitat. In 1909, the U-M Biological Station was established near Pellston, at the northern tip of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. The station went on to significantly impact Great Lakes research at the university.

• U-M's Paul S. Welch offered the first limnology course at the Biological Station in 1923, and five years later offered it on campus in Ann Arbor. His book "Limnology" was the first comprehensive text on the subject published in the United States.

• U-M's Museum of Zoology did much of the pioneering work on fish taxonomy and evolution in the United States. In 1947, Carl L. Hubbs and Karl F. Lagler first published their seminal work "Fishes of the Great Lakes Basin."

• The university partnered with the University of Toronto to initiate the Conferences on Great Lakes Research in 1953. Publication of the proceedings of those conferences eventually led to the creation of the "Journal of Great Lakes Research," an internationally respected peer-reviewed publication, and the International Association of Great Lakes Research.

• In 1966, Congress established the national Sea Grant program, modeled on the highly successful Land Grant program. Michigan Sea Grant was established at U-M in 1969 with a three-part program of research, outreach and education. Among its many achievements is a Michigan Sea Grant-funded project that discovered techniques to revive cold-water drowning victims — resuscitation methods that are used worldwide today to save lives.

• In 1974, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration established its Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory to highlight its research focus on the lakes and located it in Ann Arbor to be close to the U-M campus.

• In 1989, an agreement between U-M and NOAA established the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research, known as CILER. The institute is based at U-M and undertakes cooperative projects involving university researchers throughout the Great Lakes basin and scientists at NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

• In 2009, the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation awarded $500,000 to a team led by David Allan of the School of Natural Resources and Environment for a project to comprehensively analyze and map various threats to the Great Lakes. Known as the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping project, or GLEAM, the initiative will produce the first high-resolution map of cumulative threats to the Great Lakes, providing a critical tool that will enable regional planners and conservation groups to coordinate regional conservation efforts.

• In October 2012, U-M and 20 other U.S. and Canadian research institutions formed the Great Lakes Futures Project, which will propose a set of long-term research and policy priorities to help protect and restore the lakes and to train the next generation of scientists, attorneys, planners and policy specialists who will study them. Project researchers will use a cross-disciplinary, cross-sector approach to outlining alternative Great Lake futures through science-based scenario analysis.