Niagara Gazette

May 20, 2013

Underwater craft helps Great Lakes researchers collect shoreline data

By HOWARD BALABAN howard.balaban@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — POINT BREEZE — A couple of scientists looking to learn all they can about Lake Ontario visited the beach near the Oak Orchard Creek Lighthouse on Saturday morning. Before they left, they had gathered data using an AUV — autonomous underwater vehicle.

Russ Miler of the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) operated the AUV. He said he helped plan the route the torpedo-like unit took Friday night and early Saturday based off previous data collected at other spots along the lake near Oswego and Sodus Bay.

The choice to use Oak Orchard came to fruition based on the fact that Oak Orchard River empties into Lake Ontario. 

“We like to pick some places along the lake that are representative of the lake as a whole and accessible so that if we need to we can chase the unit down by boat,” Miller said. He said the overall process is like a survey that hits on as many areas of the lake as possible.

“Typically there is a river at each launch point,” Miller noted.

The rivers are key to gathering the information desired, he added. He said the rivers carry nutrients to the lake and affect the food available for the fish in the lake. Also, the river water is warmer than the lake water, and when the two collide a thermal wall is formed due to the different water densities.

His colleague, Dr. Greg Boyer, director of the Great Lakes Research Consortium, echoed Miller.

“We’re working on figuring out what’s supporting the fish, where their food supply is and what they eat,” Boyer said. He said the work done to the “offshore” waters since a US-Canada water quality agreement in the 1972 has tremendously improved the lakes. However, the “nearshore” waters still require attention.

“The algae in the nearshore waters is continuing to get worse and worse,” Boyer explained. 

Some of the cause of the algae could be the thermal wall Miller described.

“Much of the management plans for Lake Ontario are driven by offshore water, but if the barrier is severely blocking nutrients from flowing out there, then the management plan will need to change,” Boyer explained about the wall. The experiments will ultimately determine where the wall is and how it actually forms.

The gathered data could indeed lead to new plans for those who wish to wish on the lake. But Boyer said any effect that data has would be felt through education and awareness efforts rather than forced regulations.

He said the education necessary for the public could be as simple as asking waterfront homeowners to hold off on fertilizing their lawns a little longer into spring.

“I think we can all agree we want the lake to look pretty,” Boyer said. “The communities we work with have recognized the tourism value of these lakes and they’ve worked well with us.”

Saturday’s AUV launch was one of roughly 30 that will be done this summer. Another bunch of experiments will take place on boats. Next year, the GLRC will examine similar issues at a different lake in order to maintain its rotating schedule. 

Along with the GLRC and GLOS, New York Sea Grant helped fund the project.