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Buoy season over

Deployment near Grand Marais, Munising, Marquette

A properly cleared fire hydrant is pictured. Local fire departments are asking residents of the cities of Ishpeming and Negaunee to adopt a fire hydrant by keeping it clear of snow. (Photo courtesy of Ed Anderson)

MARQUETTE — On Oct. 24, 2017, the largest wave height ever recorded on the Great Lakes — 28.8 feet — was measured by buoys at Granite Island and Munising.

That little piece of trivia might never be known if it wasn’t for the Superior Buoys program, now funded by Northern Michigan University and coordinated by the Superior Watershed Partnership in cooperation with Lentic Environmental Services.

The program includes three state-of-the-art monitoring buoys usually deployed near Grand Marais, Munising and Marquette.

Since 2015, the buoys have provided nearshore marine weather and wave data to the National Weather Service, U.S. Coast Guard, National Park Service, and recreational and commercial boating operations from Marquette to Grand Marais.

Braving rain, sleet and cold, a small scientific team recently ventured out onto Lake Superior to retrieve the last wave and weather monitoring buoy near Grand Marais.

Each season Northern MIchigan University students assist in deploying and retrieving buoys as well as learning how to calibrate sensitive monitoring equipment and interpret a wide range of weather, wave and related environmental data. Here NMU student Michaela Smith assists with retrieving the last buoy and downloading data. (Photo courtesy of the Superior Watershed Partnership)

The buoys are owned by NMU and operated in cooperation with the Superior Watershed Partnership.

Reflecting on the 2019 buoy season, the fifth year of the program, Dr. John Lenters from Lentic Environmental Services noted the largest wave heights measured this year were a 14-foot wave event at Grand Marais on Nov. 15 and a 9-foot wave event near Munising on Oct. 16.

“Grand Marais tended to see much more frequent large wave events this year than Munising, exceeding 8 feet at least 16 times this past season, while Munising only saw one wave event higher than 8 feet,” Lenters said in a press release from the Superior Watershed Partnership.

The large wave events over the past few years have also been occurring in conjunction with high Lake Superior water levels, causing a significant amount of coastal erosion along the lakeshore.

Of even greater importance to many of the boaters who use the buoy data are the smaller wave events that can make for hazardous conditions on the lake, particularly for kayaks.

“Once wave heights start to exceed around 1 to 2 feet, kayaking along Pictured Rocks can get pretty treacherous for beginners, with few places to land your boat,” Lenters said.

The frequency of wave events in excess of 2 feet started to increase significantly after about mid-August, according to data recorded by the buoys this past year.

Polling information collected near the end of the 2019 season shows the buoys are getting a lot of use, particularly by commercial tours and fishermen near Munising. Many users noted they access the buoy data several times a day and plan their boating operations around the wind, wave and water temperature data as well as webcams that show current conditions, including fog.

The data have even helped local businesses and their customers save money through improved planning.

Numerous NMU students have been involved in the buoy program over the past five years, not only by using the data for research projects, but also by participating in fieldwork during buoy deployments and retrievals.

Funding and support for the Superior Buoys program has been provided by the Great Lakes Observing System/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NMU, SWP, Lentic Environmental Services, the Frazier Fund, the Alger Regional Community Foundation, Marquette Rotary Club, and local residents and business.

As long as funding is available, the Superior Buoys program will resume operations early next summer, including redeployment of the Granite Island buoy at its location near Marquette.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and support from the communities and agencies that use the buoy data,” Lenters said, “and we look forward to continuing to provide them with valuable marine weather data in 2020.”

For more information, visit www.superiorwatersheds.org, email info@superiorwatersheds.org or call 906-228-6095.