NMU Buoys Monitor Lake Superior Conditions

Thursday 26, 2017

Regional observations of record-setting, 28.8-foot wave heights and hurricane-force wind gusts during Tuesday’s severe storm were generated by Northern Michigan University-owned monitoring buoys at Granite Island and Munising, as well as the Stannard Rock weather station on Lake Superior. NMU’s project to operate buoys along the southeastern shore was established in 2015 with a grant from the Great Lakes Observing System. Real-time, precise data promotes greater preparedness for coastal weather events and were heavily utilized Tuesday by the National Weather Service, U.S. Coast Guard, recreational and commercial boaters, and other entities.

The buoy anchored near Granite Island off Marquette’s shore is one component of NMU’s new Granite Island Living Laboratory program in cooperation with Lentic Environmental Services and the Superior Watershed Partnership (SWP), which owns Stannard Rock Light. The program is designed to enrich large-lake research, along with education and training opportunities for NMU students and SWP partners.

Holly Roth, an environmental science major with a concentration in water resources, is the primary student intern for the buoy project, and she helped deploy the buoys at Granite Island and Stannard Rock this year. Holly said that having the data at her fingertips throughout Tuesday’s storm reinforced the value of the buoy program.

“Visual observations tend to vary from quantitative observations, so the buoy readings played a huge role in forecasting the storm and conveying information to the public,” Roth said. “Combining that data with social data on how municipalities and the general public prepared for and reacted to the storm can be useful when coming up with coastal resiliency and climate adaptation plans for the future. But regular monitoring is important because the buoys are also useful in everyday forecasting for the weather service, along with those who rely on the lake for business and recreation.”

The collected data has been used in NMU classes and in research conducted by established scientists. Roth presented her own research analyzing buoy data at the American Association of Geographers East Lakes Division Conference. Her new research project compares variables ranging from air and water temperature to wind speed and direction to show seasonal and inter-annual patterns and how those compare along the southeastern shore of Lake Superior. She is also looking at the development of large storms across the lake.

Roth is working on the project with professor Norma Froelich, who incorporates buoy readings into her NMU classes and made full educational use of Tuesday’s readings in addressing waves, weather maps and storm systems.

“The data from the buoys will give us a lot of insight into the development of big storms,” Froelich said. “It will also provide insight into the NWS and NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory on the models they use for forecasting waves. By continuing to put the buoys on the lake for hopefully many years to come, we'll be able to observe the lake in different conditions—after harsh and mild winters or rainy summers with changing lake levels—and investigate how those inter-annual differences affect the severity of storms and the frequency of bigger storms.”  

Granite Island is owned by Scott Holman, NMU alumnus and chair of the NMU Board of Trustees. He has been committed to making it accessible to his alma mater for research projects, a writers’ residency and other educational activities that fall under the Granite Island Living Laboratory program. 

Kristi Evans
News Director