Experts say more ‘smart’ technology is needed in the Great Lakes to monitor climate change

smart lakes sensor buoy
A buoy with sensors located off of Navy Pier. The buoy operated by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant measures water conditions and shares the data in real-time on research websites. Ben Szczygiel / Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant
smart lakes sensor buoy
A buoy with sensors located off of Navy Pier. The buoy operated by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant measures water conditions and shares the data in real-time on research websites. Ben Szczygiel / Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant

Experts say more ‘smart’ technology is needed in the Great Lakes to monitor climate change

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It’s time to make Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes “smarter.”

That’s the view of researchers, scientists and government agencies that monitor the world’s largest freshwater system. As climate change shows signs of altering the lakes’ ice cover, water temperatures, water levels and shorelines, experts are pushing plans to deploy more so-called smart technologies.

These include sensors on buoys, satellite imagery, cloud-based computer platforms and other innovations to gather data across the vast lakes.

Collecting data in the Great Lakes has been going on for years. It’s used by everyone from the National Weather Service to local water agencies, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to recreational boaters. But now, the urgency created by climate change and the development of smart technologies are driving new strategies to better understand the lakes.

“Most of these smart Great Lakes efforts are focused on measuring some aspect of climate change. We have relatively little data across the lakes,” said Aaron Packman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, and director of the school’s Center for Water Research.

With the aid of the latest technologies, researchers want more and better information on water temperatures and quality, lake levels, coastal erosion and algae blooms, all of which can be influenced by a warming climate.

“There are many types of smart technologies that would be really valuable in the Great Lakes,” Packman added. “What we’re aiming for, in general, is small, permanently deployable sensors that will send real-time data. So you don’t have to go out and collect information. They transmit it. And then we know if there’s an extreme weather event, or if there’s a harmful algal bloom, that something is happening and we can respond to it in real time.”

Advocates also want to use the latest powerful computers and communications platforms to make that data widely available so that people know what’s happening in the lakes at any given time.

Packman is involved in the Smart Great Lakes Initiative, a consortium of dozens of government and university researchers, conservation groups, technology innovators and others in the U.S. and Canada. Formed in 2019, the Initiative released a Common Strategy for Smart Great Lakes in October last year. It envisions greater investment in technology, science and research in the lakes, and more collaboration on data gathering and policy planning.

Some of this smart technology is already in Lake Michigan, including close to Chicago. More than 20 sensor buoys are deployed in the lake every year, and are supported by groups including the Chicago Park District and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. The buoy locations include a point off Navy Pier, north suburban Wilmette and Michigan City, Indiana.

The buoys are “around four and a half miles offshore, sometimes much, much closer,” said Carolyn Foley of Purdue University, the buoys research coordinator for Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. “And they have a variety of sensors on them that are collecting information.”

That data, which is uploaded and analyzed in real time, can be compared with past data sets to discern what’s shifting in the Great Lakes.

“We can see how patterns, water temperatures, wave heights, things like that are changing throughout the years,” said Ben Szczygiel, a buoy specialist and colleague of Foley’s at Purdue and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. “And we know that the rate of water rising and falling can be accelerated due to climate change. And we can see the general effects that can have and … how detrimental that can be with coastal areas.”

Szczygiel said shoreline communities can use that water level data to anticipate problems like erosion, and make improvements to their infrastructure.

smart great lakes buoys
Researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research load buoys on a boat in Monroe, Michigan before heading out on Lake Erie to deploy them. Russ Miller / Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research

Experts say making the Great Lakes smarter will require investment in the latest technologies and spreading them across the region. The Smart Great Lakes Initiative will urge the U.S. and Canadian governments to provide funding.

Currently, data monitoring in the lakes is too sparse, said Kelli Paige, chief executive officer of the Great Lakes Observing System, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

One concern to her is the increasing evaporation of the lakes during winter months when they don’t freeze over. But to monitor this pattern, there are only a handful of stations across the Great Lakes, and they measure small areas, according to Paige.

“If it’s getting warmer, and the lakes are not freezing as often as they usually do, that means there’s more evaporation of the lake into the air, and now we’re potentially losing the overall water balance. So, those are really important insights that we need to be able to have more of to help us better prepare and manage the lakes,” she said.

Paige’s group is part of efforts to make Great Lakes data more abundant and accessible. That includes developing a cloud-based platform, called Seagull, that can be used to process and instantly share lake information such as temperatures and currents.

Smart technology is evolving so the data is not only for scientists and government agencies. Paige believes the general public – such as sailors and people who fish – is interested, too.

“We’re living in the modern world now, right?” she said. “You walk by Starbucks and a little notification pops up on your phone that says, ‘Hey, you’re at Starbucks. Did you know that there’s 50% off pumpkin spice lattes?’”

“That’s how people are expecting to engage in their environment. People want push notifications. People want alerts.”

A website launched in 2021 called H2NOW Chicago may not offer alerts and notifications, but it’s an example of smart technology that anyone can access. The online platform uses probes with optical sensors to monitor water quality in the Chicago River, which connects to Lake Michigan, of course.

Gauges on H2NOW Chicago update the water quality every 15 minutes, so people can check if conditions are safe for fishing, kayaking or other activities.

Mark LeBien is an editor on the audio news desk at WBEZ. Follow him @marklebien.

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