The 10-person crew that assembled an enormous horizontal mooring to gather data about convective cells in Lake Superior

A Superior Solution

Learning about the lake

Published08/01/2019 , by Gretchen Zampogna

Jay Austin, one of Solution Studio’s featured researchers, is an observational oceanographer and limnologist heading up a team at UMD studying Lake Superior’s convective cells. His job covers everything from math and coding to equipment fabrication, and he has to be confident on a boat and able to describe to the captain and deck hands what he wants to do. He has to be a “mathematician with steel-toed boots,” as he puts it.

Austin’s aptitude for math in school translated into physics in college. Then a summer fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute offered an exciting foray into research and oceanography, but he was off to Cornell to major in math when the summer ended. By the following year, Austin realized that he missed the ocean research, so he made the move to a graduate program at Woods Hole. “I really enjoyed the idea that I could take math and figure out something about how the world worked,” he says.

Jay Austin aboard a research vessel

Jay Austin aboard the Blue Heron, a research vessel.

Studying Lake Superior

These days, Austin is exploring Lake Superior and learning new things every day. “It’s too easy to dismiss this as Lake Superior—people must know all about it. But they don’t. It’s remarkable how many open questions there are.”

Austin’s research is highlighted in the Bell’s Solution Studio exhibit for this very reason: There’s a lot to learn. His most recent project is a huge undertaking that looks to understand the physics behind spring lake turnovers. “We know it starts stratifying in the late spring or early summer. But it’s poorly understood,” he says. “Fresh water does a weird thing below 39 degrees Fahrenheit where it gets denser when you heat it up, so when you shine sunlight on it, the water near the surface gets heavier and sinks to the bottom. We want to study what these plunging chimneys of warm water look like and the returning cold water bubbling from the bottom, how effective is it at getting water from the surface to the bottom.”

To this end, Austin’s team deployed a massive horizontal mooring into Lake Superior in May to collect data continuously through mid-July. The mooring is constructed of  steel cable and is 500 feet tall, with the top sitting 100 feet below the lake’s surface. It’s anchored with two 1,000-pound blocks of concrete on each side, with hollow steel spheres keeping the top afloat. When researchers analyze the resulting data, they will have a two-dimensional slice of what the convective process looks like.

A comparison of the lake mooring's size to that of Duluth's lift bridge—the mooring is more than twice as big.

A comparison of the lake mooring’s size to that of Duluth’s lift bridge—the mooring is more than twice as big.

Austin wants to understand how the process works, and says it plays a major role in redistributing nutrients, phytoplankton, and anything that can’t swim against the current. “We often think of these lakes as monolithic, just one big blob of water, but in fact, there can be redistribution within the lake such that different parts of the lake behave very differently from each other. We don’t know the implications yet—we’re going to discuss how to approach the problem using all the data and see how consistent it is over years,” he says.

Scientists never before knew what was happening at the bottom of the Great Lakes. This data is their chance to get a clearer picture of how the water moves and what goes on seasonally, and to see how it changes over time, adding to our understanding of how such a huge body of water behaves and what that means for people, plants, and animals in and around Great Lakes.

For more information about Austin’s project, check out this story from UMD and see his lab’s Facebook page.