Make no mistake—the buoy gently bobbing in the waves eight miles offshore in Lake Erie is not the normal type. It isn’t intended for navigation like the ones boaters use closer to shore or the ones keeping swimmers within a safe distance of the beach at Edgewater Park.
Instead, this buoy is equipped with sensors that transmit a variety of real-time weather and scientific data back to shore, as well as a webcam mounted to its 6-foot-tall mast that relays 30-second snapshots of current lake conditions once hourly.
Funded by Lake Erie Energy Development Company (LEEDCo), it’s one of 16 smart buoys dispersed throughout Lake Erie. (Others are sponsored by entities including the City of Cleveland Division of Water and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
The buoys detect a variety of data, including wind speed, wave height, water and air temperature, oxygen counts within the lake, and even walleye migration patterns. Anyone can text certain buoys or view them online to get an up-to-date weather report—a feature local boaters and fishermen particularly appreciate.
“The buoys are really a nice scientific platform for whatever the issue is—whether it's monitoring oxygen levels that may impact drinking water or monitoring the movement of fish for research,” says Ed Verhamme, a project engineer with LimnoTech, the Ann Arbor-based environmental and science firm that deploys the buoys. “It’s a nice mix of science use and public use.”
A new partnership between LEEDCo and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research means the data can be shared and used by 23 different organizations for scientific research projects. It’s also a step towards plans to shape Lake Erie into the first “smart lake,” an effort by the Cleveland Water Alliance to create a model for tech-driven innovation and preservation of an important natural resource.
“Prior to the buoys, what you would do is go take water samples every so often, take them back to the lab, and evaluate them,” says Dave Karpinski, Vice President of Operations for LEEDCo. “Now you have this real-time data feeding you information from various points in the lake all the time. That's what enables this to become a smart lake.”
Karpinski says the research consortium will determine what to do with that data and incorporate it into future decision-making efforts, opening up all sorts of new correlations that "maybe one wouldn't have thought to look for until the convergence of technology in the water with big data,” he says. “The possibilities are pretty exciting.”
Redeployed last Thursday, May 1, with its new high-definition webcam after spending the winter in storage while the lake was frozen, the three-year-old LEEDCo-sponsored buoy is situated at the proposed site of the future Icebreaker Wind turbine farm, an energy project the nonprofit is spearheading. Currently mired in a lengthy permit process, Karpinski is optimistic about a 2022 build date. Once the six turbines are built, it’s his intent to have data gathered and transmitted from the turbines to further feed into the smart lake mission.
LimnoTech is making things smarter by piloting a wireless sensor network this year to improve data and webcam quality. Currently using whatever cell signals make their way over the lake, the new network can also lead to improvements in cost and increased disbursement of the buoys.
“That's going to blanket the higher Cleveland area in a specifically designed offshore wireless network, so these buoys that we deploy will be the first test cases of that,” says Verhamme. “Then we can use that to add other buoys, cheaper and closer to the shore, and to measure different things.”
What it all boils down to is a happier, healthier lake that looks to the future while avoiding past issues like algal blooms and pollution. “It's all aimed at monitoring and responding to health issues of Lake Erie and water quality issues,” says Karpinski. “We want to be proactively enabling people to take measures to improve and heal the lake. We've come a long way. It's obviously so much better than it was, but we're not done.”
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