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NMU Collaborates on Great Lakes Research 

According to a study released this week that is receiving extensive media coverage, the recent Arctic blast will likely lead to a healthy rise in Great Lakes water levels in 2014. The processes responsible for that change are not as simple as some might assume. It is true that extreme cold increases ice cover, reducing evaporation by preventing water vapor from escaping into the air. But a team of American and Canadian scientists note that the reverse is true as well: evaporation rates in the autumn help to determine the extent of ice cover in the winter.

The bi-national group comprises the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center, a federally funded collaboration between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. It collects data for studies on evaporation and other relevant issues from a network of five weather stations on the Great Lakes. One site is located on Granite Island, about 10 miles offshore on Lake Superior near Marquette. NMU faculty and students monitor sophisticated weather equipment (pictured) funded by the island’s owner, alumnus Scott Holman. In addition to evaporation, the station measures air temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure, carbon dioxide, wind speed and direction, precipitation, solar radiation and water temperature.

Climatologist Norma Froelich (Earth, Environmental and Geographical Sciences) said evaporation research has practical implications for shipping because water level helps to dictate the weight of the load. It also impacts fishing, tourism and property owners. She said NMU’s goal is to build on the evaporation studies and explore other Great Lakes issues. One project would involve John Lenters of LimnoTech, an Ann Arbor-based environmental consulting firm. Lenters was the evaporation study’s lead investigator.

“We hope to research waves and rip currents,” said Froelich, pictured right with department head Susy Ziegler (EEGS). “That would have a lot of implications for society. If there are high waves and strong currents at one location, can you predict when it might hit other sites along the shore so you can issue safety warnings? Or if pollution or E. coli contamination is detected somewhere, where will the motion of the water carry it?”

Ziegler said NMU’s involvement in the network is raising the visibility of the department and the university.

“There’s growing awareness of the great education our undergraduates can get as they seek answers to real-world questions about our environment,” she added. “This study really opened doors for Katie Ringler, an earth science major who now has an internship at the National Weather Service office in Negaunee Township. She modified her academic program because of it. Assisting with this project has led to a series of other research opportunities, including studying lake effect snowfall. All of this experience will help Katie as she moves on to graduate school and a career in a related field. Her story is just one example of how students benefit from this collaboration.” 

Both Froelich and Ziegler agree on the value of continued observation through a coordinated approach. The study released this week is the first coordinated effort to research evaporation across the Great Lakes. It was done by piecing together results from several related, independent studies. In a press release, Lenters said the bi-national group’s network of five stations is one of the few sources of direct, year-round observations of Great Lakes evaporation.

“It’s our hope that we will soon have the funding and infrastructure in place to maintain—and even expand—the network well into the future,” Lenters added. “This will be extremely important for improving Great Lakes water-level forecasting and for understanding the long-term impacts of climate change.”