Duluth observatory home to unique research

by Seth Woehrle

After a few short years, the University of Minnesota-Duluth has quietly become the center for scientific study of the Great Lakes and large lakes around the world.
Five years ago, UMD formed the Large Lakes Observatory, the only institute in the nation devoted to the study of large lakes on a global level.
The observatory gives a staff of seven faculty members — scientists ranging from oceanographers to geologists — an opportunity to study lakes, a discipline known as limnology.
Formed by Thomas Johnson, an oceanographer concerned with climate change, the LLO has gone on to conduct research on large lakes in the United States, Africa and Asia. Most of the research, however, centers on Lake Superior.
“You need to have an understanding of the lake so you can protect it,” said Douglas Ricketts, a UMD professor and research associate with the LLO. “One of the scientists at the (observatory) has discovered that Lake Superior is warming, and another tracks and samples sediment for pollution.”
“The (observatory) has opened the door to research on large lakes and on Lake Superior in particular,” said Robert Megard, a professor in the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior.
Scientists from the University of Minnesota’s Duluth and Twin Cities campuses, as well as Michigan Tech, are currently participating in a five-year study of the Keweenaw Current off the Keweenaw Peninsula.
The project, called Keweenaw Interdisciplinary Transport Experiment on Superior, studies the flow of water and sediment in what Megard calls “Lake Superior’s analog to the Gulf Stream.”
Along with the KITES study, projects to study the Great Lakes with other universities are currently being planned.
Waterbound research
What makes much of the research possible is the observatory’s acquisition of a Grand Banks fishing trawler in 1985. The ship was sailed up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Lake Superior, where it was retrofitted for research use.
The Research Vessel Blue Heron was completed in 1998 with water sampling equipment, acoustic remote sensing equipment and berthing for a crew of nine. It has the capability to perform research on any of the Great Lakes.
The largest university-owned research vessel in the Great Lakes, the Blue Heron can operate 24 hours a day for 10 days between port calls.
The LLO charters the boat to research scientists on the Great Lakes, and UMD brings classes on 12-hour trips on the ship, offering hands-on learning in oceanography, biology and geology.
“The Blue Heron has had a significant impact on the study of Lake Superior, the most poorly studied of the Great Lakes,” said Noel Urban, a professor at Michigan Tech and researcher involved in the KITES program. “The barrier to the study of the lake in the past was the lack of research ships.”
The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities also sends faculty and graduate students on three or four cruises a year on the Blue Heron.
“It has substantially increased the amount of data that the department can receive,” said Megard. “Now there is a ship that is there whenever we need it.”