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Chicago Boaters Use Offshore Buoy For Real-Time Lake Michigan Conditions

By Justin Breen | May 10, 2017 5:32am | Updated on May 10, 2017 5:42am
 Thousands of Chicago boaters use the buoy to find out whether they should hit the water each day.
Thousands of Chicago boaters use the buoy to find out whether they should hit the water each day.
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CHICAGO — Chicago's boaters can make a better decision whether to hit the water each day thanks to a buoy that was launched early Tuesday morning in Lake Michigan four miles offshore of suburban Wilmette.

The Wilmette buoy is used to relay information on wind speed, air and water temperature, and wave height and direction.

The TIDAS 900 Wilmette buoy, a joint project between Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and LimnoTech, is deployed in the lake usually from late April through October. It's been in Chicago-area waters during warmer months since 2015. It was deployed a little later this year due to rough water conditions in recent weeks.

More than half of the 43,000-plus hits that the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Wilmette Buoy page received in 2016 came from the Chicago region, with about 22 percent of them directly from Chicago, according to Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant spokeswoman Irene Miles.

The buoy is the closest offshore to Chicago, although the Chicago Park District manages six that are within breakwalls or piers.

Scientists and forecasters at the National Weather Service also use the data to issue small craft advisories and other warnings, and buoy data can also greatly improve the predictive modeling used to estimate E. coli contamination at Chicago area beaches, Miles said.

"To have sort of tangible information that’s out there, to know exactly what is happening in the environment — we like to call it a 'ground truth' — is just so critical to the forecast process," National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Fenelon said.

Fenelon has been predicting conditions on lakes Huron, Superior and Michigan for 27 of his 30 years with the weather service.

“Despite the advanced satellites we have, advanced radars, nothing replaces a ground truth report and especially for a wave report. We have to get that information for wave height from either a buoy or a manual observation from somebody on a ship,” he said.

Before the Wilmette buoy was installed, the closest offshore buoys to Chicago were in Michigan City, Ind., and Milwaukee.