Swimmers, boaters, fishermen, meteorologists and water researchers now have a new set of eyes that are constantly monitoring conditions in Lake Michigan.
On Monday, the team from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant deployed their latest buoy to collect data – Pier of Chicagonicknamed “Chuoi” – a mile from the Navy Pier, joining other Sea Grant buoys in Wilmett and Michigan City, India (although now a trio, Two yellow buoys will remain a pen of Twitter, in case thousands of buoy followers ponder.)
The Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, a program co-managed by the University of Illinois and Purdue University, also oversees a pair of buoys for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; they are located in lakes near Waukegan and Winthrop Harbor respectively.
But weather conditions further north often do not coincide with what is happening on the lake on the southernmost shore, said Ben Schigil, an aquatic ecologist and buoy specialist with Sea Grant. Adding Chuoy to the mix will fill a hole the size of Chicago in monitoring capabilities.
Like other buoys, Chuoy will provide a constant stream of information about solar radiation in real time; wind speed and direction; water temperature throughout the water column, from surface to bottom; as well as wave height, direction and period. “Period” refers to the amount of time between waves, Schigel explained.
The camera will also take photos and videos of the solar-powered buoy about every hour, he said.
“These are great tools,” Schigel said of the buoy. “It would be nice to have one in each harbor,” although at a price of 12-15,000 dollars apiece buoys are not cheap.
The nonprofit Sea Grant funds buoys from crowdsourcing on its own initiative, he said, to make the data freely available to everyone. Consumption is one of the reasons why the organization asks boatmen to be especially careful when moving near buoys. Buoy Michigan City once suffered a direct hit that required an expensive replacement.
Getting this information into the hands of people, especially swimmers and boaters, is a key component of the Sea Grant mission, which promotes the scientific literacy of the Great Lakes by combining research, education and information activities. To that end, Chuoy will help people make more informed decisions about whether the day is safe to leave Chicago, Schigil said.
As recently as ten years ago, there was only one buoy that collected data on Lake Michigan, anchored in the mid-lake in the 1980s by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Mike Bardou, a coordinating meteorologist at the Chicago National Weather Service office.
Crews aboard lake cargo ships were another source of weather information, he said, but it was random rather than systematic, and reports of coastal conditions did not exist, leading to dangerous situations.
For example, when a strong north-south wind blows through Lake Michigan, the waves gain height along the entire length of the lake (this is known as “fetching»). A buoy in the middle of the lake could report waves of one foot, but at the southern end, home to about 12 million people, waves could approach 15 feet.
Now that the weather service is issuing a beach warning or a recommendation for small boats in Chicago, images from Chuoy can help understand the point.
“We can talk about big waves, but this ‘right about water’ will help paint a picture,” Bardov said.
The “wave period” data point is another piece of information that can benefit swimmers in particular. Lake Michigan alone typically accounts for half of all Great Lakes drownings a year, as much as all other lakes combined, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. Statistics show that most such drownings do not occur when the waves are highest, but when they are in the range of 3 to 6 feet.
“It’s big, but not‘ scary ’big. People think, “I can handle this,” said Ricky Castro, a meteorologist with the Chicago National Weather Service.
But what makes Lake Michigan’s waves so deadly is not so much the height as the period or time when the swells follow one another in rapid magical succession. Castro said it’s a unique aspect of the lake that people don’t know about, and that’s what makes swimmers.
Tracking current conditions, Chuoy also establishes a historical record of Chicago’s coastal waters.
Bardou said it could be useful for predicting things like the point at which lake waves will break about barriers on DuSable Lake Shore Drive or houses on the shoreline. “If nothing else, it gives us a threshold ahead of what conditions, such as wind speed or wind direction, led to this result,” he said.
Buoy data will have applications outside of meteorology.
Austin Happel, a biologist from the Shadd Aquarium, has come to Burnham Harbor to launch Chuoi and is already figuring out how a buoy can contribute to his research on urban waterways.
“Buoys collect temperature data, which is a driving factor in how a fish behaves – when a fish spawns, how much it eats,” Hapel said. “In the future, I hope to link this data more to keep track of fish, where it goes and how it changes over the seasons. At what temperature do they appear? How do they act when storms come? ”
Chuoi will be in place depending on the weather until late October or early November.
Note: This story was originally published on May 4th. It has been updated to include our “Chicago Tonight” talk.