Smart buoys connect the Great Lakes in a whole new way

Published: October 28, 2019

smart buoy Photo courtesy of The Cleveland Water Alliance.

Text a buoy and it can text you back!

Few people are as passionate about the water as cottagers and boaters, so you will be glad to know that a unique cooperation between Canada and the United States is helping to take critical action on environmental issues in the Great Lakes and beyond.

According to the International Joint Commission, a cooperative organization that is guided by the Boundary Waters Treaty, signed by Canada and the United States in 1909, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River hold 20 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water or 6 quadrillion gallons, cover a total area of 246,463 square kilometres or 95,160 square miles, and with the St. Lawrence River, span 3,700 km (2,342 miles) or almost half of the North American continent. The watershed is one of the world’s most diverse with 3,500 species of plants and wildlife and more than 250 species of fish.

More to the point, how important are the Great Lakes? The Great Lakes provide drinking water to an amazing 40 million people, including 25 percent of all Canadians and 10 percent of Americans. The lakes are hugely important to agriculture, transportation, industry and for recreation. They are under a lot of pressure.

Max Herzog, Program Manager at the Cleveland Water Alliance explained to us that Lake Erie has become probably the most connected of the Great Lakes following the 2014 Cleveland drinking water crisis where algae got past the water treatment systems to consumers. That helped to mobilize a growing program to monitor and manage the water quality in Lake Erie. A system of “smart buoys” has been deployed to monitor the lakes and Lake Erie is probably the most wired.

Delivered through the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS), the smart buoys collect and make information available to scientific, educational and industrial interests, and to the public. Lake Erie has about 20 smart buoys, some privately owned and some public, each of which cost tens of thousands of dollars and each measures a range of data including:

  • Wind speed
  • Water temperature
  • Air temperature
  • Wave height
  • pH
  • Dissolved oxygen
  • Toxins
  • Turbidity

Through GLOS, you can find a list of every smart buoy in the Great Lakes: What is very cool is that you can select any buoy with a numerical name and text that number to 866-218-9973 or 734-201-0750 for the latest observations. In seconds you get the data on your phone.

Cross-border cooperation is very important. Leading aquatic researchers from across Canada and the United States are now be equipped with these state-of-the-art resources thanks to a project launched by the University of Windsor.

Aaron Fisk, the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Changing Great Lakes Ecosystems, officially launched the Real-time Aquatic Ecosystem Observation Network (RAEON) in 2017.

“RAEON will support comprehensive and multidisciplinary research to understand and manage the Great Lakes and will be a reference for researchers worldwide who are investigating freshwater ecosystems,” Dr. Fisk said.

The project received $15.9 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI); Ontario’s Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science; and the Ministry of Economic Development and Growth. This allowed Fisk and his team of researchers from Carleton, Trent, and Western universities, and collaborators from the United States, to create a network of real-time sensors, autonomous sub-surface vehicles, and an extensive collection of independent instruments including the smart buoys in GLOS.

Other similar high-tech water quality initiatives include the launch this past summer of Canada’s first Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) through Georgian Bay Forever, a charitable organization that funds and supports scientific research and education that protects and enhances the waters of Georgian Bay, as part of the Great Lakes.

Georgian Bay Forever donors generously provided $80,000 towards this purchase and the organization also received some grant money from ECCC through the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve for this equipment.

The Great Lakes are clearly a very important resource that needs to be managed and safeguarded and it’s encouraging to see the progress we are making. If you are interested in learning more, our Government has the Ontario Great Lakes Strategy and you can read all about it here.

The connected Great Lakes were the route the earliest European explorers followed to map North America and now, smart buoys connect the great lakes in a whole new way to protect this precious resource.

One of the “smart buoys” now deployed in Lake Erie.
One of the “smart buoys” now deployed in Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of The Cleveland Water Alliance
A water sample containing harmful algae.
A water sample containing harmful algae. Photo courtesy of The Cleveland Water Alliance.

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