Warmer means windier on world's biggest lake

Nov 15, 2009

Rising water temperatures are kicking up more powerful winds on Lake Superior, with consequences for currents, biological cycles, pollution and more on the world's largest lake and its smaller brethren.

Since 1985, surface water temperatures measured by buoys have climbed 1.2 degrees per decade, about 15 percent faster than the air above the lake and twice as fast as warming over nearby land.

"The lake's thermal budget is very sensitive to the amount of ice cover over the winter," says Ankur Desai, atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "There is less ice on Lake Superior during the winter, and consequently the water absorbs more heat."

A wide temperature differential between water and air makes for a more stable atmosphere with calmer winds over the relatively cold water. However, as warming water closes the gap, as in Lake Superior's case, the gets more turbulent.

"You get more powerful winds," Desai says. "We've seen a 5 percent increase per decade in average wind speed since 1985."

Those findings will be published today (Nov. 15) in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Desai, fellow atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor Galen McKinley and graduate research assistant Val Bennington of UW-Madison and physics professor Jay Austin of the University of Minnesota-Duluth used more than 20 years of temperature and wind data collected by three lake buoys and Earth-observing satellites to model Superior's water and wind system in three dimensions.

"We can look at how the currents are changing based on changes in the wind," McKinley says. "What we saw was a significant increase in the speed of the currents, nearly 10 percent per decade."

In theory, that increase in wind and current strength would make for more mixing within the lake and, in turn, a boost in the growth of organisms that make up the earliest links in the food chain.

But Lake Superior's levels — a measure of the presence of phytoplankton —have been falling. The effect went largely without explanation until the researchers' modeling showed that the period of temperature stratification (well-defined separation of cold, deep water and warm surface water) was growing alongside surface temperatures and wind and current speed.

"The warming of the lake is counteracting the mixing we would expect," says McKinley, as the annual period warm water "shoals," or remains shallow, grows longer by a few days every decade.

A warmer Lake Superior may also have consequences for the movement of airborne pollutants to and from lakeshore communities.

"If you look at an area like Door County, they have issues with pollution in the air, but not the industries that produce it," Desai said. "What they have is Lake Michigan, which has a weaker temperature differential and higher along-shore speeds that bring in air from industrialized areas."

Changes in the lake winds may also play out over neighboring land, Desai says, possibly in the way Superior drives fall's lake-effect snowstorms.

Lake Superior may be the anchor for a chain of lakes that hold one-fifth of the world's fresh surface , but the impact of steadily rising temperatures has been poorly understood, according to Desai.

"Large lakes are very interesting," he says. "They behave sometimes like an ocean and sometimes like a small lakes, but they're not studied as much as either."

That may change with the arrival of more than half a billion dollars promised by the federal government to Great Lakes programs. McKinley sees the group's continuing research as vital to a reasoned approach to mitigating the effects of pollution and invasive species.

"We have more to do," McKinley says, pointing to Austin's mooring of underwater instruments and the researchers' continuing assessment of the carbon cycling in and out of Lake Superior as part of a four-year grant funded by the National Science Foundation.

"The new federal money is good, but it can't only be for remediation," she says. There's got to be some of that science to understand how these lakes work."

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison (news : web)

Explore further: NASA gets two last looks at Tropical Cyclone Jack

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Great Lakes slowly losing water

Jun 22, 2007

Boaters on Lake Superior said the water is so low it appears the world's largest freshwater lake is disappearing.

Lake Superior might hit record low levels

Aug 15, 2007

Lake Superior is nearing a record low level for the month of August and might set records for September and October, U.S. government hydrologists said.

Nitrate in Lake Superior: On the Rise

Jun 04, 2007

Nitrate levels in Lake Superior, which have been rising steadily over the past century, are about 2.7 percent of the way toward making the lake's water unsafe to drink, according to a study by University of ...

Warming Could Radically Change Lake Tahoe in 10 Years

Mar 24, 2008

A new UC Davis study predicts that climate change will irreversibly alter water circulation in Lake Tahoe, radically changing the conditions for plants and fish in the lake -- and it could happen in 10 years.

Recommended for you

NASA gets two last looks at Tropical Cyclone Jack

18 hours ago

Tropical Cyclone Jack lost its credentials today, April 22, as it no longer qualified as a tropical cyclone. However, before it weakened, NASA's TRMM satellite took a "second look" at the storm yesterday.

Krypton used to accurately date ancient Antarctic ice

Apr 21, 2014

A team of scientists has successfully identified the age of 120,000-year-old Antarctic ice using radiometric krypton dating – a new technique that may allow them to locate and date ice that is more than ...

Taking the pulse of mountain formation in the Andes

Apr 21, 2014

Scientists have long been trying to understand how the Andes and other broad, high-elevation mountain ranges were formed. New research by Carmala Garzione, a professor of earth and environmental sciences ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

60% of China underground water polluted: report

Sixty percent of underground water in China which is officially monitored is too polluted to drink directly, state media have reported, underlining the country's grave environmental problems.

Florida is 'Ground Zero' for sea level rise

Warm sunshine and sandy beaches make south Florida and its crown city, Miami, a haven for tourists, but the area is increasingly endangered by sea level rise, experts said Tuesday.

Robot scouts rooms people can't enter

(Phys.org) —Firefighters, police officers and military personnel are often required to enter rooms with little information about what dangers might lie behind the door. A group of engineering students at ...

In the 'slime jungle' height matters

(Phys.org) —In communities of microbes, akin to 'slime jungles', cells evolve not just to grow faster than their rivals but also to push themselves to the surface of colonies where they gain the best access ...