May 27, 2020

Nearshore Buoys, Workhorses of the Great Lakes

Oh Buoy!
By Kristi Kates | July 29, 2017


Kristin Schrader, the communications manager for the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS), bubbles over with enthusiasm for buoys. She’s even got a buoy license plate and buoy stickers on her car. Yes, buoys — those ubiquitous floating water markers (usually used for navigation) seen across the Great Lakes and beyond. But while she’s a fan of all buoys, freshwater and saltwater alike, Schrader has a special interest in the work that she does overseeing the buoys of the Great Lakes Nearshore Buoy Network. Or, as she calls them, “those charismatic, amazing little workhorses.”

It’s easiest to think of a buoy much like a small boat, albeit one with a plump, not sleek, shape. They’re built of steel and fiberglass and are painted bright yellow, with flashing lights for visibility. Each has its own designation number, and carries its own power system (most often solar panels; sometimes batteries). In the Great Lakes, the buoys of the Nearshore Buoy Network are owned by a lot of different entities, from universities to businesses to research organizations.

The buoy that sits east of the Mackinac Bridge is owned by the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab (part of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA). In Little Traverse Bay, the Cooperative Institute of Great Lakes Research (part of the University of Michigan), owns and operates the buoy. And in Grand Traverse Bay, the buoy is owned by the University of Michigan Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratory. Each is part of a network of about 50 buoys that are scattered throughout the Great Lakes.

No longer just mere navigation markers, today’s buoys are outfitted with a range of sophisticated electronic instruments that can collect and transfer a remarkable amount of data. Some are even outfitted with cameras. All of the info they collect is sent to the National Buoy Database Center, another service of NOAA. So they’re like their own little club — a democratic, data-sharing community.

“Besides collecting the information they’re generating, which is used for research or water quality activities, the data is put out [via the organization’s website] for people to discover in their own ways,” said Schrader.

That could be anything from a sportsman who wants water temperature data to find out where fish are more likely to be running, or a person developing a mobile phone app to help swimmers find the beach with the safest currents.

The Great Lakes Observing System puts the gathered data through quality control and serves it back online in an easy-to-find and easy-to-use format, all in one place.

“You can get simple observations from one location, or you can dive deep into data in raw formats,” Schrader said. “It just depends on what you are using the data for.”

Use of the buoy information can be on the more casual side — the fishermen or app developers Schrader mentioned, sailors using windspeed and current information to plan for a race day, or even just tourists hoping for pleasant vacation weather. But the data is also used for more critical purposes, such as for the Mackinac Marine Rescue Team, a volunteer organization that depends on the buoys to help correlate information for boaters or other people in distress or need of rescue.

Information about water quality is other significant contribution that the buoys make. “Things like algal blooms [a rapid increase in the population of algae in freshwater] or hypoxia [depleted oxygen in water] can cause unpleasant and unhealthy drinking water,” Schrader said. “So water treatment plants keep an eye on the buoy information, as it can serve as a warning. The plants know how to treat those kinds of things, but they need a big heads-up to know that the danger is headed their way.”

Much like many northern Michigan boats, the buoys are yanked out of the water before the ice forms; and in the interim they go to a kind of “buoy spa” where the mussels are scrubbed off their exteriors, their instruments are recalibrated, and they receive a coat of fresh paint and stickers. The problem?

“That absence each winter makes something of a dark hole in our research,” Schrader said.

In the Arctic, cabled buoys are tethered to the ocean floor so that they can be pulled beneath the water’s surface, allowing them to continue collecting data in the water below the ice layer. “Ours still just have anchors,” Schrader said.

So why doesn’t our buoy network have the cabled buoys? “Great question,” Schrader said. “Mostly, we don’t have the funding for them yet. But we could definitely use that more robust system, so we’ve applied for a grant to test the cabled buoys here. We’re always adding new technology, and those would be another great addition.”

Just like the weather in general, Great Lakes environmental data can change rapidly, so the buoys are invaluable in giving everyday civilians, as well as professionals, access to easily viewed water- and weather-related information whenever they might need or want it.

“The biggest benefits of this whole thing at the end of the day are for general public safety,” Schrader said, “for better, safer use of all the beautiful resources of our Great Lakes — both for those of us who live here year-round and for Michigan tourism, which depends on people having safe, happy experiences in and on the water.”

Interested in getting the nitty gritty on Great Lakes weather, wind, beach health, water nutrients, and more? Visit the organization’s official website,, which lets you zoom in on scads of current information available — wind speed, wave height, water temp, wave rate, air temp, and much more — from every buoy in the Great Lakes. Want access to real-time and historical data, forecasting capabilities, and oodles more data tools? Hit up



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