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Predicting the fate and impact of watershed nutrient loads as Lake Michigan's hydrodynamics shift under climate change

Project Leader:
Project Fellows:
Project Investigators:
Galen McKinley (UW-Madison)
Paul Seelbach
Pete Esselman
Anne-Marie Schneider (USGS Great Lakes Science Center)
Craig Stowe (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)
Matt Diebel (WDNR)
+1 more
+1 more


Climate change is shifting the hydrodynamics and temperature of both the Great Lakes and their tributary rivers.  Both hydrology and temperature may play potent roles in mediating the magnitude of watershed nutrient load and their fate upon reaching the lake.  Tributary hydrology reflects the source of water (groundwater vs. surface runoff) and seasonal timing of discharge, while tributary temperature determines the density difference between river and lake water.  Similarly, mixing patterns in these massive lakes strongly influence whether tributary loads remain near the shore or become diluted in the open water, while the thermal profile determines whether inflowing river water is trapped at the surface, sinks to the bottom, or stays at an intermediate depth.  These physical interactions are critical for understanding the ecological impact of tributary loads, and how it is mediated by climate change.  We are merging watershed nutrient load studies with a 3-dimensional hydrodynamic model of Lake Michigan to assess how the location of a tributary interacts with its seasonal patterns of temperature, discharge, and nutrient concentrations to determine impact on the coastal environment.

The goals of this project are to 1) Enhance strategic prioritization of tributaries for nutrient load reductions. 2) Connect watershed nutrient loading with degradation of coastal water quality and ecosystem services.  3) Partition climate change impacts on coastal nutrient loading between shifts in tributary dynamics versus lake dynamics.


Mooney, R., Society for Freshwater Science meeting, Detroit, MI, May 2018
Mooney, R. (NE CSC Graduate Fellow): UW Center for Limnology weekly seminar, April 19, 2017