R/V Blue Heron research vessel - Kate Crowley
It was 33F Tuesday morning at 6 a.m. when I went out to feed the birds. Tiny bits of white flittered down. I refused to believe it was snow and continued to trust in the weather report which said we were going to have a day with sunshine and 50 degrees.
As I drove north to Duluth I looked to the east and could see the sun trying to break through the clouds and by the time I reached Thompson Hill it was well on the way to succeeding. The lake had a silvery sheen and more blue patches of sky were poking through the clouds. It was going to be a beautiful morning on the Lake.
I was headed to the U.S. Corps of Army Engineer pier where the R/V Blue Heron was docked, but first I and a lot of other cars had to wait for a gigantic freighter to pass through the canal and under the Lift Bridge. From my position it looked as if the ship was as long as the entire Canal. It’s always a thrill to see one of these huge vessels pass so close by.
We had met Bob Sterner, the Director of the Large Lakes Observatory a few weeks earlier at a talk he gave in Duluth. We wondered whether it would ever be possible to catch a ride on the Blue Heron and a week later, we received an invitation to go along on the two hour press tour. Being a social media blogger has its benefits. Mike was disappointed to miss out on the trip, but he was on another boat traveling up the Mississippi River from New Orleans.
There were 11 of us ‘press’ types, but most of the other folks either carried large cameras or microphones. I had my spiral bound notebook, pen and iPhone for photos. Captain Raul Lee gathered us on the deck for a mandatory safety talk and then we were underway. The Lift Bridge went up again and as we cruised underneath it we covered our ears when the boat blew its horn.
The 90 foot boat was built in Portland, Maine and used as a fishing trawler on the Atlantic, but when the cod fisheries crashed, it was put up for sale. The LCCMR (Minnesota legislative commission) provided $250,000 for UMD to purchase it. That was back in 1997 and since then it has been retrofitted to serve as a research vessel. Interestingly, the Blue Heron (previously known as Fair Try) is identical to the boat that was the ‘star’ in the film Perfect Storm. But this boat doesn’t go out in severe weather because its job is to stop in one place while experiments are conducted and that is too difficult to do in big waves.
It costs the scientists $9000 per day to use the boat. $11 million in research funding has been acquired in the intervening years. The boat has sleeping accommodations for the five crew members and enough extras for six scientists. There are three levels onboard, which include the wet lab, dry lab, sleeping quarters, galley and two heads (toilets for you landlubbers). The boat travels at a steady, comfortable 9 knots, which is best for the most efficient use of fuel. It has been out in every month except February.
The temperature had warmed up to somewhere in the 40s and when you got out of the wind, it was quite pleasant. I looked at Duluth’s shoreline and tried to see where we walked. I could see a lot of rocky red cliffs which was a reminder of why we had to walk so much of the road on the Minnesota shore. The hills were covered with the soft pastel green of new leaves. The storm driven waves of a couple day ago had mellowed and there was just an easy undulation of up and down. I like that sensation; a reminder of the year’s Mike and I spent sailing around the Apostles.
The current research project has a timeline of three years and they are half way into it. An important aspect of this project is that it combines physics, geology, biology and chemistry – a completely integrated way of surveying the Lake and its health. This is the most comprehensive and coordinated (between the various sciences) project that has ever been done on the lake or on any freshwater lake in the world.
Lead scientist Liz Minor explained that they have designated 12 sites on this side of the lake. There will be four trips in the coming months, each three days long. They work throughout the day and night, making the most of their time and financing. Liz said that when they hear the engines stop, they immediately know it’s time to get up (if they happen to be catching a few winks) and get to work. She said they make up for lost sleep once they’re back on land.
There are a variety of things that they are studying. One is the stratification of the water (layers of water separated by temperature) and analyzing the different types and abundance of algae at the different levels. They also tow zooplankton nets and use sonar to see fish. The length and severity of our winters impact not only the ice cover, which they are studying, but the composition of the algae and phytoplankton that exist at the different temperatures. Already they have noticed that phosphates in the water seem to be decreasing, while nitrates are increasing. These are conditions which will influence the types of algae in the water.
Doug Ricketts who is the Senior Research Associate and Marine Superintendent (he schedules the boat trips) is also a geologist and has been studying the sediment on the bottom of the Lake. Mud cores show changes that have occurred in the atmosphere, as well as what has been deposited from land. One significant discovery was the presence of lead in the cores during a certain time frame. Think about lead based gasoline. Its use peaked in 1971/72. Then a law was passed to eliminate it and, ‘boom’ it disappears in the core samples the next year. This material was carried in the air and deposited via rain. This is a dramatic example of positive change. Not all experiments or research provide such clear or immediate answers.
At the stern (back) of the boat there was a device known to the scientists as the CTD (stands for conductivity/temperature/depth). It is also known as a rosette because there are a collection of ‘bottles’ held together in a circle formation. This is lowered into the water and the bottles collect water at different depths (depending on the location) and then it is raised back onto the boat and the researchers empty the water into other containers that will go into the lab for in-depth analysis. We stopped five miles out where they dropped the CTD.
Jay Austin is a scientist who has been studying the lake ice. One of his instruments is put in the water before winter and then it is able to ‘look’ up at the ice and determine thickness and drift. This gathers much more detailed information than has been possible in the past. Most of what is known about ice is from satellite images from thousands of miles away. They are gathering baseline data that will be used to compare ice on the lake with air temperatures. Already they have found that a difference of 1-2 degrees celsius can lead to fairly significant differences in ice conditions. Interestingly, the winter of 2012 had the least amount of ice cover – ever. The next winter had full ice cover and this year was close to that.
It is obvious that Bob and the other scientists are passionate about their work. They are as fond of and fascinated by this beautiful big body of water as we are. Bob emphasizes how the health of this lake influences our quality of life, especially for those living in Duluth. Their drinking water comes from this lake. The future of fishing, both commercial and sport depends on a healthy lake. We are living in a time of change in terms of the climate and we could think about these scientists as doctors measuring the vitals of this vast Lake. It is the cleanest and healthiest of all the Great Lakes and it is imperative that we do everything we can to keep it that way.
As the boat entered the Canal and the bridge went up, I stood next to the rail and smiled (and waved) at the people watching us pass by. I felt special, honored and very grateful to have had this opportunity; to feel that connection with the Lake and other people who love it as we do.