2002 Progress Report: Great Lakes Diatom and Water Quality Indicators

EPA Grant Number: R828675C001
Subproject: this is subproject number 001 , established and managed by the Center Director under grant R828675
(EPA does not fund or establish subprojects; EPA awards and manages the overall grant for this center).

Center: EAGLES - Great Lakes Environmental Indicators Project
Center Director: Niemi, Gerald J.
Title: Great Lakes Diatom and Water Quality Indicators
Investigators: Kingston, John C. , Axler, Richard , Johansen, Jeffrey R. , Kelly, John T. , Kreis, Jr., Russell G. , Morrice, John , Sgro, Gerald V. , Stoermer, Eugene F. , Thompson, Jo , Yurista, Peder
Current Investigators: Reavie, Euan D. , Andresen, Norman A. , Axler, Richard , Ferguson, Michael J. , Johansen, Jeffrey R. , Kingston, John C. , Kireta, Amy R. , Sgro, Gerald V. , Stoermer, Eugene F.
Institution: University of Minnesota , John Carroll University , University of Michigan
EPA Project Officer: Packard, Benjamin H
Project Period: January 10, 2001 through January 9, 2005
Project Period Covered by this Report: January 10, 2001 through January 9, 2002
RFA: Environmental Indicators in the Estuarine Environment Research Program (2000) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Ecological Indicators/Assessment/Restoration , Water , Ecosystems


The overall objective of this research project is to quantify the extent to which pressure indicators influence diatom community structure in nearshore wetlands, estuaries, and reaches of the Laurentian Great Lakes. The specific objectives of this research project are to: (1) develop predictive models through multivariate analyses of communities and ecosystems to infer ecological status at local and regional scales and describe predisturbance-to-recent baselines, trends, and magnitudes of change in restricted river-influenced and other wetlands; (2) evaluate and modify existing diatom metrics, and devise and validate new diatom metrics, so that a number of state indicators for nutrient loading, siltation, and salinity in nearshore waters of the Great Lakes will be available to federal and state agencies; (3) construct multimetric diatom indices from the best of these state or condition metrics; (4) develop integrated indices of biotic integrity based on a combination of selected metrics developed in the diatom subprogram and by other teams in the larger program; (5) develop a quality assurance/quality control infrastructure for the diatom subprogram and future assessment efforts; and (6) conduct a limited water quality survey (field and laboratory measurements) of nearshore sites contemporaneously with diatom sampling to: (a) calibrate diatom indices, (b) further characterize sampling sites for all Great Lakes Environmental Indicators (GLEI) subprojects and related U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Mid-Continent Ecology Division (EPA-MED) Great Lakes coastal wetlands projects, and (c) evaluate the efficacy of several relatively inexpensive, "field-friendly" measurements as surrogates for the more expensive suite of analytes typically used to characterize nearshore water quality.

Progress Summary:

Experimental Approach

The utility of diatom "state" indicators in evaluating stressors in aquatic ecosystems is well recognized by the EPA and other agencies. Diatom species respond with great fidelity to stressors associated with major "pressure" indicators in the Great Lakes, especially nutrient and salinity loading, siltation, and factors affecting water transparency, such as exotic species. We use a comprehensive approach to developing indicators (multivariate analysis, metrics, and indices) for near-coastal ecosystems. We use methods for indicators suitable for the entire Great Lakes Basin. Retrospective assessment using short sediment cores provides measures of reference condition. Integration with other program components will allow development of indices of biotic integrity (integrated condition) of near-coastal ecosystems. The diatom indices will provide "ground truth" for aquatic responses of landscape measures that are developed in the overall project.

Expected Results

The research will develop and evaluate indicators by local habitat, lake, ecoregion, and stressor activity/intensity. The diatom project will provide linkages from ecosystem function to water quality and to pressure indicators documented by other subproposals. We are confident that a suite of powerful diatom indicators can be developed for key pressure indicators for use throughout the Great Lakes Basin.


Considerable effort went into site selection activities, which were coordinated through the GLEI geographic information systems (GIS) and statistical groups. In coordination with all other GLEI subprojects, during 2002 we mounted our first intensive field sampling and conducted field workshops to standardize sampling. More than 100 segment-sheds geomorphic-unit combinations were sampled, with more than 400 individual sampling points (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. GLEI Diatom/Water Quality Sites Sampled in 2002. Cw - lacustrine wetland; Em - empayment; He - high energy shoreline; Pw - protected wetland; Rw - river-influenced wetland.

Diatom samples were processed for the Ely Field Station, Center for Water and the Environment, Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), University of Minnesota-Duluth, and at John Carroll University. Water quality analyses were completed by the NRRI Central Analytical Laboratory in Duluth, MN. Database activities were coordinated at the NRRI in Duluth, and data entry via the Web has been developed to provide unified methods for entry and suitable quality control of the procedures. Water quality data will be available in March 2003 to all subprojects and to EPA-MED scientists conducting related field studies in Great Lakes coastal zones. Examples of preliminary analyses are shown in Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 2. Example Water Quality Data From the GLEI Pilot Season, Showing Strong Relationships Among Turbidity and Total Suspended Solids Parameters

Manuscripts In Development. To satisfy our mandate to utilize available historic data to develop GLEI indicators, we have submitted the following abstract to the Society for Conservation Biology Annual Meeting, summer 2003 in Duluth, and are preparing a paper for submission. Paleolimnological assessment of ecosystem condition in Great Lakes drowned river mouths. John Kingston, Daniel Engstrom, Edward Swain, Eugene F. Stoermer, Jeffrey Johansen, Gerald Sgro, Kristin Yanko, Amy Kireta, and Richard Axler. Paleolimnological assessment of water quality in the St. Louis River Estuary (Duluth, MN; Superior, WI) shows that land use changes following European settlement have led to accelerated perturbation of the ecosystem over a period of 150 years. In dated cores, sediment accumulation, diatom populations, diatom-inferred water quality, and sedimentary pigment concentrations all point to decreased water transparency and increased nutrient loading in this heavily agricultural, urbanized, and industrialized watershed. Historical photographs from Duluth in the late 1860s show extensive peat wetlands in the harbor, coincident with a period of higher water quality. Paleolimnological assessment offers baselines, trends, and magnitudes of change using consistent methodology in depositional environments. In the case of the St. Louis River Estuary, and many other sites in the Laurentian Great Lakes, it is difficult to envision any practical remedial action that could restore reference

Figure 3. A Strong GLEI Diatom Predictive Model Shows That Nutrients can be Inferred From Diatom Indicator Assemblages (based on a M.S. Thesis by Kristin Yanko, John Carroll University, 2002).

conditions to pre-European settlement baselines. Our research combines sediment core analysis from a Minnesota Sea Grant project with a recent EPA-funded project to develop environmental indicators of condition for the coastal and nearshore zones of the Laurentian Great Lakes.

Additions based on GLEI analyses to the recently published Great Lakes Diatom Checklist will be submitted to the Journal of Great Lakes Research. Many of the newly discovered taxa are from Great Lakes wetlands.

We have noticed the potential for a novel "hot spot" indicator using morphological abnormalities in pennate diatoms near industrial sites to indicate stress from toxic metals. We will follow up on our initial observations of abnormal Tabularia fasciculata from Whiskey Island in the Cuyahoga River Estuary, Cleveland, OH, with increased "hot spot" sampling during 2003. Dr. E.F. Stoermer from the University of Michigan will be the lead author on this paper.

Future Activities:

Future activities are to emphasize coordination with the Fish and Macroinvertebrates and Contaminants subprojects to make integrated aquatic indicator development possible. We will complete selection of embayment sites, which were deemphasized during 2002. We again will collect nearshore samples from the EPA R/V Explorer (MED Duluth) in four of the Great Lakes, continuing research started by Tiffany Mackie (M.S. candidate, John Carroll University). We will take a sediment core near the northern Lake Michigan research site of Ricky Carter (Ph.D. candidate, Bowling Green State University) to test our ability to develop a diatom indicator of zebra mussel invasion in the Great Lakes. We will take advantage of the GLEI database design to put electronic images of our diatoms on the Web for use by project scientists and for quality control comments from a broader scientific audience.

Journal Articles:

No journal articles submitted with this report: View all 35 publications for this subproject

Supplemental Keywords:

diatom, algae, water quality, metrics, multimetric indices, nutrients, salinity, siltation, Great Lakes, coastal wetlands, environmental indicators., RFA, Scientific Discipline, ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT, Geographic Area, ECOSYSTEMS, Water, Ecosystem Protection/Environmental Exposure & Risk, Nutrients, Ecosystem/Assessment/Indicators, Ecosystem Protection, Ecological Effects - Environmental Exposure & Risk, Ecological Monitoring, Air Deposition, Ecological Risk Assessment, Ecology and Ecosystems, Great Lakes, Ecological Indicators, Risk Assessment, coastal ecosystem, diatoms, ecological condition, aquatic ecosystem, hydrological stability, nutrient supply, nutrient transport, ecosystem assessment, hierarchically structured indicators, wetland vegetation, environmental stressor, hydrological, coastal environments, environmental consequences, ecological assessment, ecosystem indicators, estuarine ecosystems, nutrient stress, aquatic ecosystems, toxic environmental contaminants, water quality, ecosystem stress, ecological response

Relevant Websites:

http://glei.nrri.umn.edu Exit
http://glei.nrri.umn.edu/default/diatom.htm Exit

Progress and Final Reports:

Original Abstract
  • 2001
  • 2003 Progress Report
  • Final Report

  • Main Center Abstract and Reports:

    R828675    EAGLES - Great Lakes Environmental Indicators Project

    Subprojects under this Center: (EPA does not fund or establish subprojects; EPA awards and manages the overall grant for this center).
    R828675C001 Great Lakes Diatom and Water Quality Indicators
    R828675C002 Vegetative Indicators of Condition, Integrity, and Sustainability of Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands
    R828675C003 Testing Indicators of Coastal Ecosystem Integrity Using Fish and Macroinvertebrates
    R828675C004 Development and Assessment of Environmental Indicators Based on Birds and Amphibians in the Great Lakes Basin
    R828675C005 Development and Evaluation of Chemical Indicators for Monitoring Ecological Risk