GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A team of scientists from over a dozen U.S. and Canadian institutions set out across the Great Lakes last week, the week when ice coverage is typically at its peak. They traveled on snowmobiles, ATVs and airboats to collect valuable data they are currently lacking.

The project is called the Winter Grab.

During the summer months, buoys and research vessels provide a steady stream of data to scientists who study the Great Lakes. In the winter, it’s a different story. Buoys are tucked away for the winter and ice prevents research vessels from collecting most data. Cold temperatures and unstable ice make it difficult for scientists to get out on foot. The lack of data has led to some knowledge gaps about what happens under the ice during the winter.

According to University of Michigan biogeochemist Casey Godwin of the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, the idea for the Winter Grab was born about three years ago when a group of scientists from the Great Lakes region met to discuss the knowledge gaps and how they could fill them. After years of planning, the samples were collected last week.

Seventeen groups of researchers from universities and agencies on both sides of the border have collected or will be collecting the same set of measurements across all five Great Lakes at almost 30 different locations.

The scientists measured snow depth on the ice, then bored a hole in the ice to measure thickness and how much light was able to penetrate. Instruments were sent into the water to measure temperature and oxygen at certain depths, which is important for understanding the ecosystem of the lake. Water, ice and zooplankton samples were collected. Bottom sediments were dredged to look at things like the behavior of the invasive quagga and zebra mussels during the winter. 

In collecting the data, scientists are hoping to understand more about the ecosystem and biology of the lake. Godwin said the changing climate is already affecting the Great Lakes in measurable ways. Reliable data on ice coverage goes back to the 1970s and though the ice coverage and extent varies just like weather patterns, the long-term trend has been a decrease in maximum ice extent on all five Great Lakes. 

Another long-term goal in collecting the data is to connect winter conditions on the Great Lakes with what happens in the summer. There is a misconception that the lakes are somewhat dormant during the winter, but that isn’t the case. Satellite imagery provides evidence that phytoplankton blooms happen during the winter and even though they likely aren’t harmful, they are important to the food web of the lake. The lack of winter sampling means there is a lack of understanding on the full impact. 

On Tuesday, Godwin and his team set out for Saginaw Bay and were able to successfully bore through 19 inches of ice to collect the samples. From there, the samples will be sent to local and regional labs for analysis, which will likely take months to complete. Scientists are hopeful it will be just the beginning of collecting winter Great Lakes data.