(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — “Clean water, healthy ecosystems & watersheds and vibrant coastal economies.”

That’s the work the Pennsylvania Sea Grant does with a variety of partners to advance science and understanding around topics like aquatic invasive species (AIS) in streams, rivers and in Lake Erie.

While environmental concerns are a top priority, one of the group’s long-term goals has been updating the digital data map for Lake Erie.

It’s a tool that helps emergency responders and environmental resource managers in dealing with incidents that may adversely impact the environment, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This also provides a concise summary of coastal natural resources, fast visualization of the situation and improves the communication and coordination among responders and environmental stakeholders.

What does the Environmental Sensitivity Index do?

The Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA) is a web-based Geographic Information System (GIS) tool that integrates and analyzes various real-time datasets into a single, interactive map.

According to Nicolle Rutherford, Office of Response and Restoration’s (OR&R) ESI Program Manager with NOAA’s Emergency Response Division, ESI maps have been made since 1979 when they were created in response to the “Ixtoc Ioil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

They are used by oil and chemical spill responders and coastal planners. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (freshwater marshes and scrub-shrub wetlands) and human-use resources (public beaches and parks). 

The data also aids operational decision-makers and responders — such as the U.S. Coast Guard and state agencies — by providing information about sensitive habitats and species in the area that could be at risk, along with contact information for local resource experts. The datasets are used in a wide range of other cases across the public and private sectors, including planning, resource assessment and permitting and compliance.

NOAA ESI Lake Erie Map

But why an almost three-decade-long wait?

The long gap between updates of the maps is due to a lack of consistent funding for the program, Rutherford states.

The Lake Erie maps were among the oldest in the nation before this update, and many others around the Lakes are in need of a refresh as well.

However, the Great Lakes region is in the midst of a whole-scale update to all of its ESI maps.

Starting with especially high-risk corridors, the Straits of Mackinac and the St. Clair/Detroit River System were updated in 2019, followed by the St. Marys and St. Lawrence Rivers in 2021 and then Lake Erie in 2022.

These updates to Lake Erie represent the first update to its ESI data since the original paper maps were created in 1985. Rutherford said this would not have been possible without the support of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and the US Coast Guard National Center of Expertise for the Great Lakes.

How is that data compiled?

According to Rutherford, data on sensitive shorelines were originally gathered by aerial observation, but in recent years, high-resolution satellite imagery has provided most of the information that is required. When available, high-resolution aerial imagery is still beneficial in ranking shorelines. 

Biological resources are compiled from many existing data sources, including state agencies, local experts, and previous datasets. Human resources data is also gathered from existing geospatial sources, including from state and federal governments. 

All of these data types are compiled into geospatial databases and available for download or through ERMA (Environmental Response Management Application), OR&R’s interactive online mapping tool. The data is also presented in PDF maps covering coastal regions.

How long does the process take?

The process to complete the Lake Erie ESI maps took about a year from the date OR&R was awarded the contract to the delivery of the final datasets and maps, according to Rutherford. This timing can vary based on the size of the area being mapped.

ESI products do not currently use sonar mapping or bathymetry information gathered by ships from other NOAA offices or the U.S. Coast Guard, but Rutherford says there are discussions underway to coordinate future mapping efforts.

NOAA aims to gather data once and use it in many places across the agency.   

Agencies that collaborate

The funding for the Lake Erie ESI update came from the US Coast Guard National Center of Expertise for the Great Lakes. The Center of Expertise also funded the updates to the St. Marys and St. Lawrence River datasets. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has or is supporting the updates to the other Great Lakes and connecting water bodies’ datasets.  

Data from many other agencies at the state and federal level, along with nonprofits and academics, is critical to creating the biology and human-use maps.

Partners that provided data for the Lake Erie ESI dataset are: the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Great Lakes, the U.S. Geological Survey, Seneca Nation and several academic institutions. 

Any future plans?

The biology and other ESI information change over time but not so rapidly that monthly or yearly updates are needed, Rutherford said. She thinks that a seven-year update schedule is reasonable.  

Lake Ontario is currently in the data-gathering phase for its own update, due in late 2023, and Lake Michigan is slated to follow soon behind. They will refresh the data for Lake Huron and Lake Superior in the coming years as well.

The Great Lakes Environmental Sensitivity Act of 2020 (P.L.116-274) was passed by Congress and signed into law at the end of 2020. This directs NOAA to update all ESI products nationwide every seven years, although no appropriations were allocated to do so.

NOAA’s goal is to meet this target of refreshing ESI data every seven years, depending on what funding is available, bu they welcome coordination and partnerships to help support ongoing ESI update efforts.

Beyond the Great Lakes, there are ESI updates in the works for the Gulf and Coast of Florida thanks to funding from the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council. 

Erie, Pennsylvania’s connection

The ESI maps identify local fish, bird, and shellfish populations that live along the lakeshore, as well as sensitive habitats — for example, the federally and state-listed endangered piping plover nests on Presque Isle State Park from April-September.

The image below shows shoreline sensitivity: the red color indicates more sensitive areas, blue/purple is less sensitive. You can also see the same area in the included environment sensitivity map where shaded areas show the types of habitat and icons indicate the species of wildlife present. 

In addition, the shoreline sensitivity index shows that the areas around Presque Isle Bay have lots of grasses and vegetated areas that are very sensitive to potential oil or chemical spills, some of which are listed as threatened or endangered by Pennsylvania. 

To learn more about the ERMA map and all its features, you can find that information on their website. Want to know the basics about an ERMA map? Teach yourself how to interpret it here.

You can also view the ERMA interactive map online.