58: Look at What the Algae Are Doing

Special bonus episode? Special bonus episode! As a follow up to our Game of Nutrients, here are Andy Bramburger's answers in full.

Disclaimer: This is an automated transcript, we apologize for any errors. If you notice any problems, please email the show at teachmeaboutthegreatlakes@gmail.com. Thank you.

Stuart Carlton 0:00
teach me about the Great Lakes teach me about the Great Lakes John Welcome back to teach me about the Great Lakes a twice monthly podcast in which I A Great Lakes novice ask people who are smarter and harder working than I am to teach me all about the Great Lakes. Hey everybody, this is Stuart Carlton at work with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. And this is actually a special bonus episode. So if you remember we were recently recorded a Live episode at the Georgia aquatic sciences meeting in beautiful Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was at a cool brew pub, I guess the Grand Rapids Brewing Company had a couple brews some good foods, some good times, and anyway, hope you listen to it. It was episode 57. If not, you can go back and listen to it. But one of the things we did was we played a little game we called a game of nutrients with Edie for him. He was a past president of I Agler when we compared his answers to those of Andy Bromberg, or the current i Hagler president, and so we thought it would be cool. We actually recorded with Andy, we didn't intend to release it as an episode. But we did. And so are what we recorded. And we're like, yeah, what the heck, let's just go ahead and release it as an episode. So that's this. That's what we're going to do what we did before just took the audio. Now, it's not up to our normal standards, because we didn't get out the whole big recording setup and what have you, but we thought, you know, it'd be really interesting and worth listening to, because I think the game of nutrients actually worked really well. I was suspicious of it. It was Carolyn's idea. But I thought it worked really much better than I. It worked much better than I thought it would. And so I'm glad we did it. But we had to cut Andy's answers a little bit for the live audience. And so here we go, we're just going to present to you basically the full interview, lightly edited only we cut out one part that we didn't end up using for the rest of this. So apologies for the audio quality, but I think it was still an interesting conversation about nutrients and lakes and how they interact and also of course, doughnuts, or sandwiches. Anyway, hope you enjoy it. And nice little bonus episode and we'll be back on June 6, with our regular episode regular scheduled episode. With someone talking about piping plover, it's actually about Montero so we look forward to that. In the meantime, consider this to be just a little sorbet to cleanse your palate after our Live episode. As always, thanks for listening, and keep grading those links.

Andy Bramburger 2:37
I'm currently the president of the International Association for Great Lakes research until I guess sometime in June this year. My research focuses mostly on phytoplankton and algal ecology and large lakes. And a lot of that is looking at how environmental stressors both natural and anthropogenic. So read that as climate change, I suppose, affect dynamics and structure of algae communities. My background really I did a lot of work in ancient links in Indonesia. So I'm a bit of a tropical ecologist. And it always makes me think of Tropical Ecology when I see the changes that we're seeing associated with our lakes getting warmer and warmer here in temperate systems. But I've also done work in the Canadian Arctic and Florida Everglades and basically freshwater systems all over the world. Cool. Thanks.

Carolyn Foley 3:34
I'm so sorry. I may hop in and have other questions, but we may not. We don't really know what we're doing, but we'll ask them the questions that we sent you. Okay. So, questions? That's all right. Okay, so, but it's really partially it's your opinion. And part of the point of this is to pit like someone who's more of an algae person versus a modeler, if it works out the way I hope it will. All right. Um, okay, so, of the five great lakes and if you want to count Lake St. Clair, that's fine. Which Lake if any, is the most negatively affected by nutrient runoff? In your opinion?

Andy Bramburger 4:13
In my opinion, Lake Erie is the most negatively affected by nutrient runoff. You know, we can we can call Lake Sinclair I guess a pretty good Lake. You know, it's kind of like Lake Champlain, a Lake of the Woods and Lake Simcoe, it's quite a great lake, but it's pretty good. You know, it has some algae problems. There's still especially on the Canadian side, a lot of agricultural there that runs into to that basin as well. But all of that ends up in Lake Erie. And on the US side, of course, you know, we're all familiar with the problems associated with the Maumee basin. And the Canadian side is largely agricultural around the Western base of Lake Erie as well. It's hard to say you know, as a whole lake If that problem is as pronounced, I know a lot of people will associate the hypoxia that we've seen in the central basin with nutrient runoff that largely enters the western basin. I think the jury may still be a little bit evidence on how tightly those two features are linked. But certainly the harmful algae bloom problems and eutrophication that we've seen in the western basin is is primarily a consequence of nutrient runoff into that into that region.

Carolyn Foley 5:30
Cool. Thank you. My guess is my prediction is that it will also say like Erie, but we'll see what happens.

Andy Bramburger 5:38
Lake Erie aficionados.

Carolyn Foley 5:42
Okay, um, next question, which Lake if any, is the most positively affected by nutrient runoff? Hmm.

Andy Bramburger 5:54
In some ways that could also be Lake Erie. And it really depends on you know, sort of what your your focus is, as, as an algae person. You know, it's, it's really hard to say, from an algae perspective, it's looking at harmful algae blooms, that's certainly what we would think of anthropogenically is a negative response, or a negative impact. In other areas, those blooms have been occurring, probably before people were around. Certainly, we've made them worse and a lot of cases, but Lake Erie also supports to a really fantastic and valuable commercial and sport fishery. So, you know, there's debates both in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario as to whether our phosphorus targets are too strict, and whether further reductions in phosphorus, although they may help our algae problems, if that will negatively affect those very valuable fisheries. Again, the jury's still out on how tightly linked offshore fisheries are to near shore phosphorus inputs. So you know, that being said to Lake Erie probably benefits in terms of, you know, walleye and perch production. Other lakes where we're, you know, looking at more, I guess, some monitors sport fisheries and a little bit of commercial fisheries, there's certainly a minimal amount of nutrients that needs to be there in order to support the food webs that culminate in those fisheries. But, you know, if we were getting something like a Lake Erie situation, you know, I can't imagine the average lake trout wouldn't really want to be swimming around and in pea soup, green water. So again, the answer is probably Lake Erie, and maybe to a lesser extent, Lake Ontario. From that, from that fishy perspective, from the

Carolyn Foley 7:49
fishy perspective, that's the title, their nutrients from the fishy perspective, because all anyone cares about is fish. Anyway, that is just a personal thing. Okay, thank you. What, in your opinion, is the coolest way to monitor nutrients?

Andy Bramburger 8:06
Hmm. To me, the coolest way to monitor nutrients is to look at what the algae are doing. And I say this for a lot of reasons. One is just because I, I feel like our reliance upon instruments is maybe a little bit putting the cart before the horse or maybe overlooking some of the the important connections and mechanisms that are at play. And before we just go out and you know, dip a probe and look at core Phil. Even within that, you know, looking at chlorophyll tells you a fair bit about how much algal biomass is in the water. But it doesn't tell you who's there, it doesn't tell you what they're doing. But we've developed over the years really, you know, well documented tight relationships between certain algal indicators, and nutrient status, and a whole suite of other parameters within the lakes. So to be able to, you know, look at those indicators, you're essentially asking the algae what they're seeing, and they can track those things, either on a much more rapid timescale than we'd ever be able to vote and sample every day. Or, on the other hand, you can look at how they'll assimilate and the communities will, will kind of coalesce or change over time. So that's a really nice way to look at sort of whatever timescale you want, whatever level of spatial resolution you want. And, you know, they're they're fun to look at in a microscope, which to me makes it a cool way to monitor nutrients.

Carolyn Foley 9:45
I still remember a talk that I saw that you in revie gave where they had measured like the diatom communities and then they had also dropped like probes for like, you know, phosphorus or nitrogen or whatever and they were like the diet Tom's did a better job of reflecting what was really happening. And it was like this room of people who were all really happy, it was very exciting.

Andy Bramburger 10:11
And, you know, you and and I work quite closely. So we're actually working on a couple of things right now that and you know, Doug Hafner is as well as involved in this. It's just sort of my collection of friends from over the years in various parts of the Great Lakes that I've worked on. But there is an idea that that, you know, some of these things diatoms do, by and large track phosphorus really well. And we can we can infer phosphorus quite precisely from diatom models. But there are some systems and some sort of temporal variability features of systems that affect how stringently certain species can track their environment and whether you get species there who, who kind of care about it or not, whether they're specialists or generalists. So, you know, there's a certain amount of uncertainty around those predictions. And we're working now to try to get a handle on, you know, what determines that that level of uncertainty and community tracking of environmental stressors?

Carolyn Foley 11:14
Cool. Okay, we have two more questions. The first is, if you could tell our listeners one thing about nutrients in the Great Lakes, what would it be?

Andy Bramburger 11:26
That it's not the be all and end all that everyone makes it out to be, even with respect to harmful algae blooms, certainly phosphorus is is what fuels the fire to a large extent. But when we start looking through decades or centuries that human beings have been in the Great Lakes space, and the overwhelming signal that we see is one of climate and warming and Lake stratification. And that even sort of overwhelms the signals that we see of cultural eutrophication and recovery. So it is important, especially in terms of absolute biomass, or absolute production, or how quickly that system is turning over carbon. But what determines who's there, what their sort of metabolic capabilities or community metabolic capabilities are. And the ultimate fate of carbon that enters the food web, can be due in large part to climate change or stratification. So, you know, it's it is really important to think about nutrients, it is really important to regulate nutrients. But it's important that we think about it in the context of the larger biological community, and what other drivers might be changing the system that, you know, we we frequently overlook, I think in our, in our attempts to manage the system.

Stuart Carlton 12:54
Michigan partner, it's like Michigan to I'm sorry, I cut you off. It's like Michigan to clean.

Andy Bramburger 13:03
Again, if you're a fishy person, maybe it is. If you're someone who likes diving, then it can never be too clear. So it depends on you know, we always think about what is the outcome or what's the beneficial use that you want to manage for. And the the, what is it I can't remember the current notes, it's slipping my mind, but this one drink fish people, you know, swimming and drinking require, you know, a certain set of conditions to make it really, you know, good water to swim in good water to drink really easy water to treat, not stressing your treatment plants to be able to provide drinking water to large numbers of people. But those are frequently at odds with how much carbon is entering the food web and successfully filtering up to those those higher trophic level top predators that we like to catch and eat. So yeah, isn't it too clear? I don't know. I mean, it's it. It is really interesting that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are now approaching or sometimes more clear than than Lake Superior. And then because they're sort of in the middle of the system, it does have impacts on what goes further down as well. So some of you and other work to since we're sort of mentioning you, and here and there. In the early 2000s, we saw the quagga mussels really hammering diatom populations in Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and that continues to this day. But with that lack of diatom production in the middle lakes, basically every year we're getting big exports of silica to Lake Erie in the mid 2000s, like 2003 Two through 2007 or so. It was driving real record Aloka Syrah lanica blooms in the early spring and late theory. So it's again, your perspective, you know, do you want to think about fish? Or do you want to think about water clarity? You want to think about macrophytes? And how much water might be pennant? Or how much light might be penetrating deep into the water column. Do you want to think specifically about Lake Michigan and Lake Huron? Or do you want to, you know, also look downstream at what changes in that algal production in in the middle lakes might mean to, you know, Lake Erie, which is

Stuart Carlton 15:33
an all honestly, sorry, go ahead. All I wanted was you to just say, I want to really want you to just say no, so I could go tell Thomas.

Carolyn Foley 15:43
So, okay, and that was not the official last question. That was just the last the last question. So this is the I don't know if you've ever listened to the podcast, but this gets asked at the end of every single, every single thing. If you could have I guess we should ask the second last one too, but okay. First one is if you can have a great donut for breakfast or a great sandwich for lunch, which would it be?

Andy Bramburger 16:03
A great sandwich

Carolyn Foley 16:09
There's really only one correct answer here. Yes. So

Andy Bramburger 16:13
yeah. I can even tell you which sandwich if if. If you're in Duluth, Minnesota, there is a smokehouse called northern Mater Smokehouse and they have just the best sandwiches, but there's one called a Cajun Finn. And they do a smoked Atlantic salmon with Cajun spices and put it on a sandwich with some fire roasted red peppers and tomatoes and other stuff. And it is delicious. So there's I mean, they would be you know, a great sandwich for lunch. Great sandwich for dinner. Great sandwich for breakfast snack like that would be

Stuart Carlton 16:55
Wait, this is like Smokehouse like smoke house. Ha us? Yeah. Yeah. National mail order. I mean have to go to the no you

Andy Bramburger 17:05
don't I don't know that you'd get a fresh sandwich. But I know that if you're if you're gonna order get the get the Cajun style smoked salmon. It's

Stuart Carlton 17:14
gonna go. Well, I will likely be in Duluth at some point. I'm in

Andy Bramburger 17:18
the region if you happen to be crossing the border into Canada. I could put in order to bring it across the only ship in the states and then you can bring it across.

Stuart Carlton 17:32
Cajun scallion cream cheese fin with to it. Yeah.

Andy Bramburger 17:37
Yeah, cuz there. It's there. They're finished. I believe they're Scandinavian.

Stuart Carlton 17:42
That's the smokehouse house.

Carolyn Foley 17:44
Cool. Okay, so the second question, I'm not gonna say entirely, because I didn't write it down. But basically, is there a spot in the Great Lakes. So So part of what we're trying to do with this podcast is let people know about the places in like that The Great Lakes are an awesome place. And there are lots of really magical things there and stuff like that. So is there any location in the Great Lakes or the Great Lakes basin? That is particularly special to you? And where is it?

Andy Bramburger 18:16
There are a lot, there are really a lot. It's hard to say where to to start being where I am now living in the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario. We just have waterfalls around every corner. So we all think of Niagara Falls and that's the big one but a lot of the Great Lakes tributaries to Lake Ontario where they fall off the edge of the escarpment. They're great waterfalls. One of the ones that's closest to here is a place called de que falls and there's an extension of the Bruce Trail, which is Canada's oldest and longest hiking trail. And there's a Bruce Trail spur the that you've actually walked behind the falling water at the base of the waterfall. So that's always, you know, that's a special place that I've known since I was a kid. Spending time in Duluth. Lake Superior has some of the most beautiful, spectacular pristine beaches that you'll see anywhere in the world. And they're freshwater so you don't have to be salt yourself afterwards. It's just a little cold. And I'm I'm a surfer, so I learned to surf on Lake Erie of all weird places to learn to surf. But the biggest wave I've ever written was just up the North Shore from Duluth a little bit at a place called Stoney point on the north shore of Lake Superior and the way it was there when it's a winter storm we'll be in surfer terms double overhead in a bit. In layman's terms about that three meter wave. Perfect. Cool. They bigger but you can't surf that. Cool.

Stuart Carlton 20:05
Oh, well, we have to talk about surfing not today but sometime I'd love to have you back on and talk about surfing. I didn't even know it was a thing.

Andy Bramburger 20:10
Yeah, there is a pretty tight knit and active surfing community in the Great Lakes. And you know, those who do it will say if you can surf in the Great Lakes, you can surf anywhere, because the best waves are when it's cold. And it's you know, it's pretty rough conditions. People from my especially in the in the US Midwest, people will drive from all over the Midwest if there's a good swell on Lake Superior. But there are great beaches to serve in pretty much every great lake Lake Erie is probably the toughest to get the right conditions to produce waves where you want them but Lake Michigan has some great surfing Lake Ontario, you know, right near where I work on the Air Canada center for inland waters, Burlington Beach, just across Lake Shore road from us as a good surf spot. So there is an active community. And it is kind of a special thing to be able to surf in the freshwater

Stuart Carlton 21:10
in Texas, they would wait for oil tankers to go by and then like there are people who live right by the beach at you know the gross polluted disgusting beach that you really shouldn't even be walking on and and they would like have a time so they watch it take care of it and they know you after about four minutes or something I need to come out and serve for them. There we go back you're

Andy Bramburger 21:32
Gonna get a waiver too

Stuart Carlton 21:34
Yeah, but that you know, I mean, you're living in Houston, Texas.

Carolyn Foley 21:39
Okay, um, Andy, is there anything? Wait, sorry? Where can people go to learn more about the work that you are doing?

Andy Bramburger 21:50
Oh, that's, that's tough. me specifically, probably just looked me up on ResearchGate or something. But in a broader sense, environmental Climate Change Canada does a lot of work on the Great Lakes. So a lot of that can be found by just kind of clicking around within the watershed hydrology and ecology research division from environmental Climate Change Canada, the work that I am still involved with working with human revie you can find through the University of Minnesota, Duluth websites, some of that and some of the things I'm involved in, you can probably find through the Large Lakes Observatory, some would be a Natural Resources Research Institute. So yeah, it's it's here and there is not really a good spot to find it. I work with a lot of different people.

Stuart Carlton 23:06
Thanks, Andy, for just jumping on there. You know, our favorite guests are the ones who are just willing to say yes, you know, we'll come up with some sort of idea that's, you know, half baked, sometimes maybe quarter baked, and it just seems fun. And our favorite guests are those that will just be like, Sure, let's try. And so Andy is willing to do that. And that's great. And so is that Ebrahimi of liminal tech, and at all? Honestly, I think in terms of learning, I think that the game of nutrients is really really good. It was interesting to hear them compare their answers and if you really actively think about it, I think I learned a lot about nutrients. So that was really good. us. We'll be back on Monday, the sixth with our next new episode. This is just a little bonus. Every now and again, we throw out a bonus episode, but we haven't done this would normally be the time when I do the credits, but you know what? We're not gonna do credits today. Thanks to Andy Bromberg. Thanks to Carolyn Foley. And thanks to you for listening and I think I already said it once but I'll say it again, keep liking those grades and keep greatin' those lakes!

Creators and Guests

Stuart Carlton
Stuart Carlton
Stuart Carlton is the Assistant Director of the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program. He manages the day-to-day operation of IISG and works with the IISG Director and staff to coordinate all aspects of the program. He is also a Research Assistant Professor and head of the Coastal and Great Lakes Social Science Lab in the Department of Forestry & Natural Resources at Purdue, where he and his students research the relationship between knowledge, values, trust, and behavior in complex or controversial environmental systems.