Weather buoys of summer return to lake
Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel   
Tuesday, 28 April 2009 11:43
Aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw - The large crane reared back, slowly picking up the 3,600-pound yellow buoy from the ship's deck and gently dropping it into Lake Michigan, off the Racine County community of Wind Point. There, bobbing in the breeze, it began streaming information to a satellite, and back down to the cell phones of anglers and boaters.

Despite its relatively small size and spinning-top silhouette, the buoy amounts to a floating weather station, vital to the safety of every ship that traverses the cold waters of southern Lake Michigan. The information it gathers helps meteorologists issue marine forecasts: wave height, direction and frequency, air and water temperature, wind speed and direction, dew point and humidity levels.

"It gives us a feel for what's going on out on the lake," said Rusty Kapela, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Sullivan, which issues marine forecasts for the southern portion of Lake Michigan.

The weather service sends out forecasts at six-hour intervals each day, as well as marine warnings when weather turns hazardous for boaters.

"Weather conditions are very different out there than on shore, especially during the passage of storms," said Jeff Jenner, an operations manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Data Buoy Center.

Because there's less friction over water than land, winds can pick up much faster and increase the size of waves. Ask anyone who works or plays on Lake Michigan - things can get nasty pretty quick.

Weather forecasting on the Great Lakes wasn't always this high tech. One obvious example: Hundreds of shipwrecks that litter the bottom.

When the data buoys stop working for whatever reason - they get hit by boats or damaged by storms - NOAA often hears about it very quickly, a sign that they're used often and not just by meteorologists.

"A lot of the intercoastal buoys, when they go out, we'll get calls from fishermen," said Bob Harris, an electronics technician for Science Applications International Corp. who was on the Mackinaw to make sure the buoy worked properly.

"You're a sitting duck out there on Lake Michigan, which is why a lot of boaters listen to the weather forecast," Kapela said. "Without buoy observations, the Weather Service would need to rely on volunteer weather observations from ships transiting the lake, which would already be in harm's way before a warning could be issued."

Because they would be crushed by ice, the two weather data buoys on either end of Lake Michigan are taken out every fall and put back each spring by the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw. Other weather buoys are placed throughout the Great Lakes and around the world.

Manufactured in Marinette and stationed in Cheboygan, Mich., the 240-foot Mackinaw features a sophisticated navigation system that can move the ship sideways and hold the vessel in place like a hovering helicopter. Late last week, Cmdr. Scott Smith and his operations crew maneuvered the Mackinaw into place next to the spot where the buoy would be dropped off, and then slowly pivoted so the deck crew wouldn't face into the wind. Then the ship was told electronically to stay put, which it did by automatically powering the three engines to compensate for wind and waves.

Boaters can dial (888) 701-8992 and the five-digit code of a specific weather buoy on their cell phones for conditions at that location. Located 40 nautical miles southeast of Milwaukee, the buoy off Wind Point is No. 45007.

 
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