Alumni News

Extreme Water Level Effects on Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands

Olivia Anderson, 2020-2021 Graduate Research Fellow

Olivia Anderson was a 2020-2021 CIGLR Graduate Research Fellow recipient from Central Michigan University.

Olivia Anderson was a 2020-2021 CIGLR Graduate Research Fellow recipient from Central Michigan University (CMU). Anderson, advised by Donald Uzarski, PhD (CMU) and co-mentored by Casey Godwin, PhD (University of Michigan, CIGLR), graduated with a master’s degree in biology focused on Great Lakes wetlands and vegetation. Currently, Anderson is pursuing a PhD at the Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences, where she is developing a decision support tool to help manage ditches in forests across Sweden.

While at CMU, Anderson and her team published a study about how Great Lakes coastal wetlands shift in tandem with extreme changes in water levels. “Recent decades saw unprecedented (for recorded history) dynamics in Great Lakes water levels: 2000–2015 experienced an extended low-water level period, which was followed by record highs in 2017–2020,” said Anderson. “The Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program has a growing database of coastal wetland vegetation surveys, which began in 2011. We used these data to investigate how coastal wetlands extent (i.e., wetland length perpendicular to the shoreline) changed with the extreme increase in water levels from 2011–2019, using data from 342 sites across all five Great Lakes. A better understanding of how coastal wetlands migrate with shifts in water levels enables decision makers to better predict where Great Lakes coastal wetlands are at risk of being lost and thus where to prioritize management efforts.” Read more about this project by following this link.

Uzarski, Anderson’s advisor at CMU, leads the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program. “Olivia’s work is gaining a lot of attention and has contributed substantially to our understanding of Laurentian Great Lakes’ coastal wetland dynamics,” he said. “While never approached in such a robust way, I believe that her results have surprised many coastal wetland scientists and have changed the way that we think about these systems. Olivia is an extremely talented student and I am certain that she will continue to be very successful through her career.” 



Q: Which is your favorite Great Lake and why?

Lake Superior is my favorite Great Lake since it borders Minnesota, where I grew up, and is the Great Lake that I’ve lived by for the majority of my life including for my undergraduate work at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. In addition, I like that it is the deepest, least populated, and most northern of the five Great Lakes, giving way for abundant beauty and many unique ecosystems.

Olivia Anderson collecting wetland field samples during her research at Central Michigan University.

Q: What led you to pursue this career path?

When pursuing my bachelor’s degree at Northland College, I realized that I really enjoy working in wetlands and with wetland plants. After graduating with a bachelor of science in Sustainable Community Development and Natural Resources, I worked as a research assistant for the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, where I got a taste of sampling for the CMU Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program. That experience led me to pursue a master’s degree focused on Great Lakes wetlands and vegetation at CMU. As a student at CMU, I was part of CIGLR’s Regional Consortium and eligible to apply for a CIGLR Graduate Research Fellowship, which I received for the 2020-2021 academic year. This fellowship helped me complete my graduate research and gave me additional resources and mentorship opportunities from a CIGLR research scientist. My research interests broadened after I completed my master’s degree. I wanted to continue working with land-water interfaces and improve my programming skills, but in a new environment and abroad. This led me to Scandinavia and the Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences. This university campus specializes in forest research, with my PhD work focused on the development of a decision support tool to help manage ditches in forests across Sweden.

Q: What was your favorite part about being a CIGLR Graduate Research Fellow?

My favorite part about being a CIGLR Graduate Research Fellow was getting more time dedicated to work on my master’s project. Graduate students often have to participate in side research projects, be teaching assistants, etc., to get their research projects and degree funded. However, the CIGLR Graduate Research Fellowship gave me the funding I needed for my first year and an opportunity to focus specifically on my research, allowing for a better and more focused start. Also, I am very grateful for my CIGLR co-advisor, Casey Godwin, PhD (University of Michigan, CIGLR) and that he introduced me to using Bayesian statistics, which I am now frequently using for my PhD work.

Q: What advice would you give to current graduate students?

As a new graduate student, I found it very helpful to focus on what the end goal/objective of my project was going to be and what questions I wanted to answer. I created a general time-table of when I wanted to complete certain steps of my project. For example, during the first semester it was figuring out my objective, why it’s important, and how I’ll get there – all put into a prospectus. Then second semester and summer it was working on cleaning data and GIS work to generate variables. This helped me feel like I was progressing and using my time well. I also intentionally included “wiggle room” in my schedule, in case I needed to backtrack or redo parts of my research, and to better understand my statistical approach and results.

Q: What was your favorite part about studying Great Lakes coastal wetlands?

Easy answer. Now that I’ve had my first summer without field work, I realize that my favorite part was vegetation sampling with the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program – I miss it a lot. I really enjoyed the diversity of wetland sites and finding my favorite wetland plants in them. I also found learning about the hydrologic dynamics of the Great Lakes and how they influence vegetative communities (e.g., zonation of wetland communities in response to differing levels of stress, etc.) to be super fascinating.