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Lake Superior's waves are being studied at 'loneliest place in North America'

Sep 15, 2017 08:20AM ● Published by Editor

By Tanda Gmiter - tgmiter@mlive.com- September 15, 2017

 A new weather buoy gathering a trove of information about Lake Superior's wave action is meant to give researchers lots of data to work with, all the while helping to keep anglers and mariners safer on the water.

The fact that it's doing this while bobbing near the Stannard Rock Lighthouse - long ago dubbed the "loneliest place in North America" - is just a bit of Great Lakes poetry.

The buoy was recently set up by scientists from the Superior Watershed Partnership and Lentic Environmental Services. It monitors hour-by-hour wave height, water temperature and wind speed, among other data. Those measurements are sent via satellite and posted to websites like the NOAA's Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) and its National Data Buoy Center.

The buoy was funded by a GLOS grant.

Despite its remote location, the Stannard Light area is a popular fishing spot, and sees its share of boat traffic because of its proximity to a shipping lane. The hope is the weather buoy will not only collect data for scientists who study the Great Lakes, but that it will give fishermen and mariners more accurate weather information before they make the long trip out into Lake Superior.

Stannard Rock wasn't labeled one of the remotest places on the continent for nothing. The shallow reef topped by the lighthouse sits 45 miles due north of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula.

Early mariners were surprised to find the reef - which is less than 5 feet underwater in some spots - so far out in Lake Superior. Before it was marked by a 98-foot-tall lighthouse, Stannard Rock was known as "one of the most treacherous reefs in the entire Great Lakes," according to Lake Superior Magazine.

That's a problem when you're just south of the Sault-to-Duluth shipping lane.

The lighthouse was built in 1883. The new weather buoy now sits about a mile away.

"Weather data has been collected at the top of the lighthouse for many years, but this is the first time that mariners will be able to see exactly what the waves are doing out there as well," said John Lenters, a senior scientist at Lentic Environmental Services, and contractor for Superior Watershed Partnership.

"We also anticipate that the information will be helpful for the Coast Guard, the Great Lakes Evaporation Network, and the National Weather Service," said Lenters, "particularly in improving wave models and forecasts that are currently being generated for the Great Lakes."

The Superior Watershed Partnership has owned the lighthouse since 2015.

It has opened the door to research there by U.S. and Canadian universities, and Great Lakes organizations.  But before it was a gathering spot for Lake Superior's weather data, it was an extremely isolated outpost for the U.S. Coast Guard.

It was also home to a few dramatic events, as documented by the Lighthouse Friends website.

Lighthouse keepers had little contact with the outside world: "The keepers at Marquette were gracious enough to read letters, telegrams, and important items from the morning paper over the radiotelephone to help those at Stannard Rock maintain contact with the world. The Stannard Rock keepers would also use the radiotelephone to check on weather conditions before they began the multi-hour trip to or from the station." 

An April snowstorm and a close call: "During his first year at Stannard Rock, Keeper Elmer Sormunen and Louis DeRusha, a fellow assistant, set off for the station from Marquette in a forty-foot motorboat on April 29, 1957. En route to the lighthouse, the pair encountered a severe snowstorm and high waves. Due to a faulty compass, they missed the station and were forced to return to Marquette. At 6:30 p.m., their boat struck a bar forty miles from Marquette and sprang a leak. By manning the pumps, the keepers were able to keep their boat from sinking, but the rising water inside the boat fouled the ignition, forcing the men to drop anchor and ride out the storm near Huron Island. Suffering from exposure, fatigue, and hunger, the men finally made it back to Marquette after a forty-eight-hour battle that they were "lucky to be able to tell about." 

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