For years, scientists have grappled with the challenge of studying what lies beneath the icy surface of the Great Lakes during the winter season. The harsh conditions have made it near impossible to gather the necessary data. However, recent advancements in technology are set to change that.
Led by Steve Ruberg of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, a team of researchers has collaborated with industry partners to develop innovative tools that open up a window into the mysteries of winter on the Great Lakes. These tools have the potential to bridge the knowledge gap and shed light on crucial biological processes that occur during this cold season.
One of the groundbreaking new tools is an autonomous vehicle equipped with an acoustic imaging system. This vehicle can seamlessly gather data and transmit it to the lab’s observing network. In addition to being remotely operated, the vehicle has the capability to autonomously dock itself at a pier using acoustic beacons, a feat that has never been achieved before. Furthermore, it is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, enabling it to stay underwater for an entire year, regardless of the duration of the ice cover.
In the coming winter seasons, Ruberg and his team hope to utilize this research vehicle to collect data on various aspects such as water quality, life at the lake beds, and fish and zooplankton populations. Moreover, the vehicle could play a vital role in responding to and investigating oil spills in different locations. Water intake managers in the Western Basin of Lake Erie have already been benefiting from data provided by the observing network, using it to monitor harmful algal blooms and safeguard drinking water systems.
Furthermore, Ruberg’s team has also revolutionized buoy technology. In the past, buoys had to be removed from the water during winter due to the risk of damage from ice accumulation and high winds. Since 2018, the team has developed robust and weather-resistant buoys along with cabled observing systems that can withstand the harsh winter conditions. These year-round buoys provide valuable surface condition data that is utilized by the National Weather Service and even used by commercial freighters and the general public for navigation and fishing purposes.
The impact of these new tools extends beyond the Great Lakes. Ruberg envisions that they could be employed in frigid regions like the Arctic, contributing to research efforts in other extremely cold locations.
With these advancements, the scientific community is poised to gain a comprehensive understanding of the Great Lakes ecosystem and be better prepared for environmental challenges, such as harmful algal blooms. The tools developed represent a significant step forward in winter research on the Great Lakes, unlocking a wealth of invaluable information for the scientific community and the public alike.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What are some challenges of studying the Great Lakes during winter?
The challenges include the need to protect buoys from damage caused by ice accumulation and high winds, limited access due to frozen surfaces, and instruments that cannot operate at low temperatures.
2. How are these new tools changing winter research in the Great Lakes?
These new tools, such as autonomous vehicles and durable buoys, are providing scientists with the ability to gather data during winter months. They can operate in freezing temperatures, withstand ice conditions, and provide valuable insights into the biological processes and surface conditions of the Great Lakes.
3. How could these tools be utilized in other regions?
The innovative tools developed for winter research in the Great Lakes have the potential to be used in other extremely cold locations, such as the Arctic. They can contribute to understanding ecosystems and environmental challenges in these areas as well.