Research torpedo away: vehicle collecting data on Lake Ontario

May 16, 2013

A small cylinder armed with research equipment is bobbing through Lake Ontario this week. It’s collecting data from a seasonal temperature barrier known as a thermal bar.

Researchers this morning launched the yellow torpedo-like vehicle into the lake this morning off the shore in Oswego. It's already navigated around Sodus Bay. It will also travel out from Rochester and Oak Orchard shorelines.

The autonomous vessel (AUV) is steered by pre-programmed GPS coordinates and can stay in the water for about seven hours, according to its operator, Russ Miller, from the University of Michigan.

The timing for the launches was important, and fairly sudden. Scientists had to time it will the formation of the thermal bar in the lake.

SUNY-ESF support specialist Mike Satchwell launches a research vehicle into Lake Ontario.
SUNY-ESF support specialist Mike Satchwell launches a research vehicle into Lake Ontario.
Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO

"In the initial part of the spring, we have a potential for a warmer inshore and sort of a cold wall that affect the currents distribute nutrients through the lake," says Russell.

The vessel will collect data on nutrient levels in the water. It could help them better understand the cause of algal blooms that form on the Great Lakes later in the summer, says Dave White of New York Sea Grant.

"They’re trying to look at what parameters might be causing that and is there near-shore, spring-based activity, that then is actually, because of the nutrient driven aspect of the lake, driving that process later in the summer," White says.

Because it's so small, about five feet in length, the vehicle is able to travel closer to shore than research ships. That will provide a new set of data, says White.

"That’s why folks are very excited about it," he says. "They’ll have near-shore data to put in with the off-shore, larger, lake-based data to really have a better picture of what’s going on."

The research is part of a cooperative monitoring initiative of the Great Lakes by the US and Canada, underway since 1972. Its focus is on Lake Ontario this year, part of a five year annual rotation through the five lakes of the system.