Over the last decade, the number of buoys reporting real-time weather observations has more than tripled from 20 in 2009 to nearly 60 in 2019. This trend has been fueled by advances in technology, specialized grant programs and public-private partnerships between coastal communities and Great Lakes scientists and engineers.
Weather buoys were first placed in the Great Lakes by the Canadian and US Coast Guards in the late 1970s to provide life-saving and navigation information to the shipping community and weather agencies in each country. Today, an additional 40 buoys are deployed by about a dozen universities, government researchers and specialized water technology companies. The new buoys have been custom designed for use in the nearshore waters of the Great Lakes and are smaller, lighter and more jam-packed with technology than their predecessors.
The buoys are solar-powered and customized for each location, but generally monitor wind speeds, wave heights and water temperatures. Some buoys are equipped to monitor lake currents, stream high quality video over ultra-fast cellular modems, track electronically tagged fish and monitor for the presence of harmful algal blooms and oxygen depleted waters.
Each buoy is deployed seasonally through collaborations with local organizations, communities and specially trained scientists and engineers. Each of the 40 new stations deployed in the past 10 years has a unique story about its initial launch, intended purpose, seasonal maintenance and funding sources that keep it operating year-after-year. Unlike the historic buoy network, funded with federal dollars, the nearshore buoy network is funded through public-private partnerships on a buoy-by-buoy basis.
A few examples include the South Haven and Port Sheldon buoys on Lake Michigan, which were initially funded with federal grants, but are now paid for entirely by contributions from local municipal governments, boating organizations and hundreds of individual donors to the tune of almost $20,000 annually. Other stations are funded by energy companies on Lake Michigan, city water treatment plants in Toledo and Cleveland, and several scientists studying coastal erosion, fish movements, lake currents and other issues.
Although many organizations own, deploy, maintain and fund various components of the buoy network, every organization cooperates to share data freely and openly through a specialized nonprofit based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, called the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS).
This group ensures that data collected by every buoy undergoes basic quality control and gets shared with the Coast Guards, weather services in Canada and the U.S., marine patrols and anyone with a web browser or phone via a unique texting service.
Current observations, video clips and historical data are available at glbuoys.glos.us. So far this year, more than 250,000 users have accessed buoy data from the website nearly 1.5 million times.
The texting service, to access data from smart weather buoys, is gaining popularity due to interest from fishermen, boaters and other water recreation enthusiasts. It has nearly 260,000 users.
The free service is maintained by LimnoTech, an environmental consulting company based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and GLOS. Users can text the identification number of the buoy to 866-218-9973. A current list of active stations is available at bit.ly/gltextabuoy. The service provides users with instant access to weather conditions from shoreline stations and weather buoys.
Even if you don’t get out on the water for boating or fishing, you can still monitor lake conditions, check webcams to see birds and sunsets, and learn about how fast conditions can change via the Great Lakes Buoys Portal. Additional stations are likely to keep popping up as communities, researchers and water companies strive to monitor basic weather and water conditions on the largest freshwater lakes in the world.
Ed Verhamme is a coastal engineer at LimnoTech in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and vice president of the International Association for Great Lakes Research.