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Minnesota researchers begin Lake Superior study

DULUTH — A half-hour's cruise out of Duluth, not far off the McQuade Road boat landing, Jay Austin gave the signal to let loose his $75,000 baby.

The crew on the Blue Heron, the University of Minnesota-Duluth's 86-foot research vessel, released the cable, and the big yellow buoy, fixed with a variety of electronic equipment, was in the water, tethered to 4,200 pounds of old railroad wheels for an anchor.

The buoy immediately began sending Austin the data he was looking for: temperature in the air (along with wind speed and other conditions) as well as water temperatures every 30 feet or so from the top to the bottom 160 feet below.

The solar-powered probe gives nearly real-time data to Austin's computer back at UMD. It may take years, even decades, before researchers see long-term trends from the information.

"More data is better, but it will probably be someone else, long after I'm gone, who actually uses this to figure out what's going on," Austin said on the boat.


Austin makes it clear he's not out to prove any global climate change theories, yet his findings have catapulted him into the climate change discussion. It was Austin and other UMD researchers who, in 2007, published the report that found surface temperatures across Lake Superior had risen, on average, 4.5 degrees since 1979, more than any temperature increase on land in the region.

He was one of the keynote speakers at a recent community conference on climate change in the Northland organized by the League of Women Voters Duluth.

Joining Austin on the panel was J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Twin Cities-based Fresh Energy, a nonprofit group that promotes alternative energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Mike Cashin, environmental manager for Minnesota Power, rounded out the panel and talked about the utility's efforts to add renewable energy sources and reduce its carbon footprint.

While the Duluth chapter of the League of Women Voters has been criticized for taking left-leaning positions on issues such as climate change and voter ID, members say they promote informed activism, not party politics.

"We aren't allowed to endorse any party or any candidate, but we do get involved in issues and we try to take well-informed stands on issues important to our area and our members," said Gay Trachsel, a local league board member. "We also try to make that information available to the public at events like this."

Austin analyzed years of data from existing weather buoys operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make the finding on Lake Superior's rising temperature. It was one of the biggest temperature increases seen anywhere in the world, but the finding was soon echoed by other studies that found water temperatures on some 160 lakes worldwide increasing as well.

Funded by National Science Foundation and NOAA grants, Austin and his cohorts now are using eight of their own underwater probes spread across the lake and what will soon be two of his own surface buoys, coupled with NOAA's existing three buoys to increase the stream of data on lake temperatures.

While ocean temperatures have long made headlines, Austin said it's time big lakes got their due.


"Lakes have long been overlooked and understudied, underappreciated, as data sources and I think it's great that's changing. The (temperature) history they are giving us is probably a lot less (affected) by what's happening on land," said Austin, who works in UMD's Large Lakes Observatory. "I think lakes can be sentinels for what's happening. They're one of the most reliable records of long-term change we have."

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