Plumbing the Great Lake's Secrets

By Jennifer Donovan

"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee.
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early."Gordon Lightfoot

Was it the gales of November that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald? Was it faulty hatch covers, as the US Coast Guard claimed? Or ballast tank damage caused by bottoming on Six Fathom Shoal, as the Lake Carriers Association believed?

Contention continues, as it has since the 26,000-ton freighter took its crew of twenty-nine to a watery grave at the bottom of Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. But soon, in a fifty-foot wave tank that will be affiliated with the new Upper Great Lakes Laboratory (UGLL), scientists may finally be able to determine what actually caused the fabled shipwreck.

The wave tank allows for waves to be generated, modified, tested, and studied. With what they learn there, Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Brian Barkdoll and colleagues may be able to definitively determine the cause of the sinking of the Fitzgerald. Perhaps the culprit will turn out to be a rogue wave-like the "Three Sisters Phenomenon"—a series of three waves following in quick succession, the first disabling the ship and the next two striking fatal blows before she has recovered from the first. Or perhaps something stranger, a mystery not yet imagined.

Barkdoll's wave tank is just one of myriad high-tech instruments that Great Lakes researchers—ecologists, biologists, chemists, physicists, geologists, engineers, computer scientists-working with the new research lab will use to probe the secrets of Lake Superior.

State funds will pay three-quarters of the cost of the $25-million facility, the only one of its kind on the Upper Great Lakes. The UGLL will house interdisciplinary labs and educational facilities for undergraduates and graduate students, as well as outreach to K-12 students, teachers, and the community.

Construction is slated to start in spring 2009, and future plans include enhancements such as boat docks and recreational facilities, to take fuller advantage of the University's location on the waterfront.

Michigan Tech is already home to many Great Lakes research projects, but the new lab will give scholars a unique opportunity to work together physically as well as intellectually. Scientists from across campus will work with researchers from agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Canadian Centre for Inland Waters to understand, restore and protect one of the world's greatest natural resources.

The interdisciplinary lab will be guided by program goals that include creating a new ecosystem monitoring and forecasting program for Lake Superior; investigating how human activities, plant and animal life, and pollution affect the watershed and coastal water (groundwater) flow; conducting outreach programs and developing Great Lakes learning resources for students, teachers, and communities; and modeling low-impact building and landscape design.

Michigan Tech Trademarks

The lab will embody a number of principles that have become Michigan Tech trademarks, says Charles Kerfoot, professor of biological sciences and a member of the UGLL planning committee. He cites research across disciplines; hands-on, discovery-based learning; a seamless partnership between research and education at university and K-12 levels; and collaboration with government agencies and a variety of public and private research partners.

"It's certainly going to provide more opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration," echoes David Schwab, an NOAA researcher who has been working with Kerfoot for more than a decade. Equally important, says Schwab, is the lab's ability to serve as a focal point for the education of all kinds of scientists interested in Great Lakes research. "We haven't had anything like this in the Upper Great Lakes," he notes. "It will make it easier to find well-trained young scientists."

Joan Chadde, coordinator of the Western UP Center for Science, Mathematics and Environmental Education, is excited about the new lab's educational potential. "Now we'll have a place to host teachers' workshops and can add after-school science programs for K-12 students, and water quality and land-use workshops. We can do research internships for middle and high-school students, in addition to Research 2009 Michigan Technological University their scientific cruises aboard the Agassiz. And we'll be right on the water, where we can take samples straight to the lab, where students can interact with the scientists." Alex Mayer looks forward to that interaction too. "The science informs the outreach," the director of Michigan Tech's Center for Water and Society observes, "but in this setting, the people we are reaching will also inform the science, because we'll be finding out what's on people's minds."

Lake Superior—A National Treasure

The new lab is a dream come true for Kerfoot. "Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes, should be a revered national treasure," he points out. Instead, it has been neglected and has fallen prey to the contaminating ways of mankind, as well as invasive plant and animal species, and the impact of global climate change.

Kerfoot's lab studies the movements of lake sediment under normal and storm conditions and the lasting effects on the ecosystem of the minerals such as copper and mercury deposited by the mining activities that flourished for more than 100 years around Lake Superior.

Others study the lake from just about every imaginable point of view.

Is Lake Superior a source or a sink for carbon dioxide? Noel Urban, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, wants to know. Can the coastal brook trout and sturgeon's ecosystems be restored? Ask professors Casey Huckins and Nancy Auer. What about beach erosion and estuary flow, inquires Barkdoll. Can we protect the watershed that feeds the lake containing 10 percent of all the available fresh water in the world? Mayer hopes that answer lies in the UGLL.

The lab itself will be a sustainably designed building with facilities to handle storm water runoff, an appropriate reflection of the environmental search-and-rescue work that goes on there. Demonstration areas will enable researchers to study how land use connects to water resources.

For example, says Mayer, "We hope to test a new kind of asphalt that storm water can drain through, potentially eliminating erosion and pollution problems caused when water runs off an impervious surface, like most parking lots, into lakes and rivers."

Whether or not Superior gives up the secret of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, one thing is certain: soon there's going to be a "perfect storm" of lake-related research stirring up the shores of the Keweenaw Waterway and the Great Lake.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.