UMD to Measure Flood’s Effects on Lake Superior

Technology usually used in oceans will be planted in Lake Superior by University of Minnesota Duluth researchers. During the winter months they will be able to detect things like temperature, depth, currents, light intensity and amount of oxygen

Two “moored proofing platforms” will be placed on the bottom of the lake for year-round data collection, something that hasn’t been done before because of the difficulty of going out onto the lake for data during the winter, said Jay Austin, a researcher with UMD’s Large Lakes Observatory.

A $485,000 National Science Foundation grant paid for the platforms, which are robot-like. During the winter months they will be able to detect things like temperature, depth, currents, light intensity and amount of oxygen. It’s data that doesn’t exist now, Austin said.

The sensors that measure such things can be put in the lake from UMD’s research vessel, the Blue Heron, Austin said, but it costs $7,000 every time researchers take the boat out for the day. This way eventually could save money.

Researchers have been documenting water quality of the lake among other things since the flood, when more than 9 inches of rain washed sand, dirt, mud, clay, entire trees and garbage into Lake Superior.

UMD’s status as both a land-grant and sea-grant institution “almost compels them to do this kind of research,” Kaler said. “Nobody else is going to be getting this kind of fundamental information that is dramatically in the public good.”

The day after the flood, the color of Lake Superior resembled Tang and certain depths had the consistency of a sand castle, said associate professor Liz Minor, with the Large Lakes Observatory.

There was zero light penetration down to 30 meters, she said. Since then, the sediment has gone away, but the tea color remains on the top layer of water in parts of the lake. It will eventually fade from sunlight, she said.

As for long-term effects, “we are in the middle of sort of uncharted waters,” she said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the ecosystem and the lake response. We know we’ve added more nutrients, we know we’ve had a lot of sediment run-off. We’re also in the situation where the sort of extreme event that we saw seems to be increasing in frequency.”

It’s important for policymakers to see and understand the research UMD is doing post-flood, said state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth. Lake Superior is Duluth’s greatest resource, he said, and the ramifications to the community if it’s endangered are huge, he said.

The work of the Large Lakes Observatory helps make sense of how Lake Superior and other large lakes throughout the world behave, Black said. It has research programs on six continents. “We don’t do research for research’s sake,” he said. “We do it to improve infrastructure and quality of life.”

Only one platform will be placed on the bottom of Lake Superior for a test-run. It will be attached to an anchor close to a UMD research buoy near McQuade Harbor.

Because they don’t have prior data for what happens under the ice in Lake Superior, collecting biological and chemical data from under ice cover this winter will be most interesting to Austin, provided there is ice.