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Painting a picture of recent changes in the Great Lakes

CMU researchers use ferry to monitor climate change and water quality issues

Contact: Curt Smith

​​​​Beaver Island Boat Company's Emerald Isle ferry travels across Lake Michigan between Charlevoix and Beaver Island up to four times a day during busy summer months. It's a 32-mile trip one way and takes a little more than two hours to complete.

Along with transporting passengers, vehicles and goods, those hours will now be critical for painting a picture of the recent changes in the lake. As soon as the ferry hits the water, researchers from Central Michigan University's Institute for Great Lakes Research will be collecting data to help inform our understanding of climate change factors and water quality issues in the Great Lakes.

"We know that lakes are warming and water quality is changing, but we don't have a full picture of what other effects the rising temperatures will have," said Don Uzarski, professor of biology, director of IGLR and director of CMU's Beaver Island Biological Station. "More data will help us make a comprehensive assessment of climate related interactions and help track major ecosystem changes."

The monitoring system is the only one of its kind operating in the Great Lakes collecting such a wide range of data. Researchers are interested in a variety of parameters, such as water temperature, phosphorous and nitrogen concentrations. Phosphorous, outlined in the Clean Water Act as a major pollutant of the Great Lakes, has caused an increase in harmful algal blooms, one of numerous cause-and-effect changes in the ecosystem. Even small changes can create large problems for species in these waters, says Uzarski.

"Increased levels of phosphorous and nitrogen are responsible for the nuisance algal blooms we see affecting city water systems more and more," he said. "These have impacts on human health, the environment and the economy."

​"Collaboration is an important part of research. We also want science classes everywhere to be able to use real data when teaching students about the Great Lakes."

Don Uzarski​​​

Uzarski hopes that by collecting more data and monitoring these facets of Lake Michigan's waters, the team can model recent changes in the lake to better inform decision-makers. These data will not be limited to IGLR researchers, however. Curious data seekers, science classrooms and research labs anywhere in the world can access a website and see all of the same information streaming live. These data also will be streamed in real-time and available for viewing on board the ferry throughout the trip.

"Collaboration is an important part of research," Uzarski said. "We also want science classes everywhere to be able to use real data when they are teaching students about the Great Lakes."

In addition to the monitoring equipment, an automated system two meters below the surface collects raw water samples up to 14 times per trip. The samples are refrigerated after they are collected and returned to the lab for analyses. This mechanism will help scientists get a comprehensive look at changes in the lake's ecosystem, allowing them to be more proactive rather than reactive.

The ferry is the main mode of transportation to CMU's Biological Station on Beaver Island. Throughout the summer, CMU offers instruction and research opportunities across a wide range of disciplines at a state-of-the-art facility in Lake Michigan. The island station is one of two in the Midwest and the only university-sponsored station of its kind in Michigan. Read more about CMU's Biological Station on Beaver Island.​​​

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