Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area. Because it is so vast, it takes a special effort to know more about it. We need more than “what you see is what you get.”
That’s why a team of scientists is plying the big lake’s waters this summer to discover hidden reaches and untold stories. The scientists want to answer, in effect, what lies below when it comes to things like zooplankton, mud and mercury levels. Even the air above the lake won’t escape scrutiny.
This effort represents a chance to measure many aspects of the whole lake rather than single, geographically isolated parts or perhaps only one set of biological, physical or chemical properties. It’s also a chance to involve both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the lake.
From now until October, if you gaze out onto the lake, you may be able to catch sight of the 180-foot U.S. Environmental Protection Agency research vessel, or RV, the Lake Guardian. The vessel will be navigating from one predetermined research spot to the next. These are known as research stations, which are not physical structures but are instead sampling sites used in previous in-depth studies.
In addition to that ship, which is leading the way with a year of intensive research in something called a Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative, others will join the fact-finding fleet. There’s the U.S. Geological Survey’s research vessel Kiyi and the EPA’s research vessel Lake Explorer II.
In addition, multiple autonomous underwater gliders — yellow, torpedo-shaped samplers — will be swimming around the lake, guided by satellites and onboard computers. One of these zippy instruments hails from the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Large Lakes Observatory. EPA and UMD researchers and other federal and state agency scientists will be studying the lower food web, contaminants, the near-shore environment, deep-water organisms, aquatic invasive species and what factors might make certain areas of the lake prone to nutrient or algae problems. Results will help scientists and natural resource managers note what’s improved compared to previous lake studies.
In addition to scientists, 15 educators from around the Great Lakes basin will climb aboard the RV Lake Guardian ship. The group includes Deanna Erickson from the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve and Lori Danz from the Superior school district. Duluthians are Krystal Reil Maas, who teaches advanced chemistry and environmental science at Marshall School, and Samantha Smingler, school programs coordinator with the Great Lakes Aquarium.
Wisconsin Sea Grant, along with Minnesota Sea Grant, jointly selected these teachers to participate in a weeklong cruise starting Saturday. They will assist in some of the research projects and will, importantly, bring their experiences back to classrooms to inspire student wonder in the Great Lakes. Their participation is supported by the Center for Great Lakes Literacy and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Each year, a different lake within the world’s largest freshwater system goes under the microscope for this kind of intensive look-see. Last year it was Lake Michigan’s turn, so for two summers in a row, this area’s Great Lakes benefits from a thorough check-up.
That’s important because we have a lot riding on our lakes. Not just along the shores of Lake Superior but beyond. The lakes support a $62 billion economy and 1.5 million jobs in the tourism, commercial fisheries, shipping and manufacturing industries.
Ahoy, Lake Superior.