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Lake Erie Study Launched Successfully

Posted: January 26, 2011

On December 20, researchers from Buffalo State's Great Lakes Center successfully deployed the first equipment to monitor Lake Erie’s ice cover from beneath it, with assistance from the Buffalo Police Underwater Recovery Unit and the Buffalo Fire Department’s fireboat, the Edward M. Cotter.

Charlotte Roehm, research scientist with the Great Lakes Center and assistant professor in the Geography and Planning Department, is the principal investigator of the project Observing Systems and Monitoring Nearshore Lake Erie. It is funded by a $972,583 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office. “Most of the money is being used to purchase aquatic and meteorological data-collection equipment,” Roehm said.

The first equipment put in place was one of three stationary buoys. “We are only deploying one this winter to test the equipment,” Roehm explained. “Some of this equipment has not been used before in these conditions, so I want to make sure that it can withstand the harsh Lake Erie winters.” The others will be deployed in the spring.

Each buoy is loaded with equipment to monitor 23 different variables including ice thickness, wave characteristics, and internal currents. Other variables include water temperature, oxygen levels, pH, dissolved organic matter, turbidity, chlorophyll, and blue-green algae. Together they provide a comprehensive evaluation of water quality. In addition, a mobile device loaded with the same equipment will collect data over larger areas.

The objective is to maintain Lake Erie’s ecological health by adding to scientists’ understanding of the lake. “What we know is that the lake is losing its battle to stay healthy,” said Roehm. “Anoxic areas—dead zones with insufficient oxygen—are recurring.” The Clean Water Act of 1972, the collection of federal statutes that protect America’s bodies of water, included provisions to limit the discharge of pollutants into the Great Lakes. Among those pollutants are nutrients, including phosphorous.

However, despite achieving the reduced levels, Lake Erie is not thriving. Scientists suspect that the Great Lakes are threatened by invasive species that disrupt an ecosystem’s delicate balance, by climate change, as well as by excessive nutrients. Also, the limits set in 1972 were based on the science of that time. Since then, scientists have acquired more knowledge. In addition, today’s computers are powerful tools for modeling, which enables researchers to collect, analyze, and interpret complex data that includes multiple variables under many different scenarios. One of Roehm’s goals for the project is to use the data to help validate and improve models developed by the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research at the University of Michigan.

Roehm, a biogeochemist and hydrologist, believes the project’s most important contribution will be the real-time and long-term nature of the data it collects, and the interpretation of such data. The data will consist of physical, chemical, and biological parameters that will provide new information about the conditions within the lake and the exchanges with the watershed.

When all three buoys are in use, two will be located in federally designated “areas of concern” in Lake Erie—areas where pollution prohibits full use of the water for food fish, drinking, recreation, or any of a number of other water-quality indicators identified by the EPA. These two locations are near the Buffalo River and the Ashtabula Creek; the third buoy will be placed near Cattaraugus Creek.

The equipment on the buoys will collect and transmit real-time information every ten minutes, day and night, summer and winter, from depths ranging from one to 15 meters (almost 50 feet). “The project is funded for two years,” said Roehm, “but I hope we will be collecting data for at least ten. That data will help scientists decide what further research is most necessary.”

The data will be available to many stakeholders via a website. During the summer, the data will be provided as it is collected so that lake managers can readily use the information. Roehm is also working closely with the National Weather Service to provide reliable data for their forecasting models.

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