GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Buoys are a common sight on Lake Michigan in the warm months. Some of them are merely meant to mark a designated swimming area but others are a bit more high-tech. These buoys collect detailed observations that are important and beloved by fishing and boating communities.
Ed Verhamme is a principal engineer at Limnotech, where the Great Lakes Program began in 2011. The first buoy was put in Lake Michigan near St. Joseph in 2011 and the program has expanded up the lakeshore since then. According to Verhamme, there are around 40 buoys across the Great Lakes that report real-time conditions, including buoys serviced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The buoys that Limnotech services weigh about 500 pounds. They are taken out into Lake Michigan each spring, towed out by a 23-foot boat and fastened with a cable to a massive weight at the bottom of the lake.
Once they are in the lake, the instruments begin to collect information. Verhamme said that wave height is the most important and commonly used data category. Other tracked parameters include wave period, wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity and barometric pressure. Water temperature measurements are taken from the surface all the way to the bottom.
The buoys can also measure water quality markers that are used by water treatment plants. It’s useful to have the ability to measure turbidity levels and watch for harmful algal blooms. According to Verhamme, knowing what the lake is doing is essential for having clean and safe drinking water. Changing water temperatures and large rain events that lead to runoff can have a big affect on how the water is treated.
When the buoys were first installed, their main purpose was to provide information that would keep working crews safe. Now, the observations provided by the buoys are essential for the National Weather Service, Coast Guard, search and rescue crews and recreational anglers and boaters. Verhamme notes the community in West Michigan is especially supportive of the buoy program.
The buoys are funded by local organizations, counties, cities and individuals. The South Haven Steelheaders is a local organization that collects donations for the buoys. If you’re interested in donating, you can find a link at its website.