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Drifting Buoys Track Water Currents in the Great Lakes Straits of Mackinac
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Drifting Buoys Track Water Currents in the Great Lakes Straits of Mackinac

by Margaret Lansing, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

Mary Ann Kutny

Mary Ann Kutny

When you’re watching a river or the waves on a lake, do you ever wonder where that water goes? If you threw a rubber ducky into the water, where would it end up? Scientists are studying the movement of water in the Straits of Mackinac, which connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, to figure out how the water moves around. This water movement can affect ship traffic, how pollution spreads, and where aquatic animals go.

This summer, NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER) scientists deployed three drifter buoys in the Straits of Mackinac, which experience water currents that are much faster than other areas of the Great Lakes. The buoys drift naturally with currents and transmit their locations periodically via satellite, allowing researchers to track and record their paths in Google Earth. These data will allow scientists to better understand short-term water movements through the Straits.

Barry Reichenbaugh

Barry Reichenbaugh

Over months and years, water travels from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, flowing downhill towards the ocean. On shorter time scales, hours or days, however, the flow has been shown to switch back and forth between the lakes. These short-term water flows can move about 80,000 cubic meters of water per second (more than the volume of 32 Olympic swimming pools!). This can cause currents of up to 1 meter per second.

GLERL scientists measured currents in the Straits in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, but the present drifters are the first of their kind to be deployed in the area and should help define the sloshing conditions and currents throughout the Straits. A team led by GLERL's Dave Schwab and CILER's Eric Anderson will use the data from the drifters to build and refine a hydrodynamic computer model that links the two Great Lakes for the first time.

Eventually, researchers hope the model will improve the Great Lakes Operational Forecast System and simulate the exchange flow between the two lakes.

“We’re now able to expand our picture of the physical processes in the Straits, and much like the Straits of Gibraltar, the exchange flow between basins provides interesting and complex conditions that can have a dramatic impact on the surrounding environment” said Dr. Schwab.

Brenda Alford

Brenda Alford


Anderson E.J., Schwab D.J., 2012. Oscillating bi-directional exchange flow through the Straits of Mackinac and implications for contaminant transport, Journal of Physical Oceanography, (in review)




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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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