Michigan Tech Opens New Research Center

Michigan Tech Opens New Research Center
Michigan Tech Opens New Research Center
July 30, 2012/The Detroit News

By Jim Lynch

Houghton — One could argue there has never been a better time for Michigan Technological University to unveil a $25 million research facility to address the most pressing issues of the Great Lakes.

A seemingly endless list of problems faces the lakes these days — from invasive species to climate change — that call into question the future of the region’s greatest natural resource.

On Thursday, the school in the Upper Peninsula’s northwestern corner will dedicate its new 50,000-squarefoot Great Lakes Research Center along the Keweenaw Waterway — a short boat ride from Lake Superior. The center and its faculty are dedicated to researching the Great Lakes’ issues and helping map a course for managing the world’s largest source of fresh water.

Michael Abbott, the facility’s director, has high hopes for what the center can become. “I see this as a place where, finally, we can bring people together who are interested in research relating not only to Lake Superior but all of the Great Lakes — from government agencies to educational institutions throughout the Midwest,” he said.

The project came together in 2008 when more than $18 million became available in the state’s annual capital outlay. Michigan Tech offered up the shovel-ready project and the rest of the funding.

What does $25 million buy in a scientific facility? The Great Lakes Research Center includes:
  • Laboratories for limnology, or freshwater science; sediments; hydraulics; mass spectrometry; and exotic species.
  • Aquatic labs that feature simulated stream tanks for study.
  • A boat dock and lift for the center’s 37-foot research vessel, the Agassiz.
  • A computer center that takes in data from the university’s 14 buoys in the Great Lakes as well as those operated by other scientific groups.
  • A pair of underwater robots for research that came from the U.S. military after being used in Kuwait.

Some labs already are running experiments, and many of the offices are filling up with their new tenants. Inside, the building maximizes the use of natural light, is heated by air that is recirculated from another nearby building, and has the look of industrial loft space.

When all is settled, the center will be home to roughly 24 faculty, staffers and graduate students.

Guy Meadows is one of those who have cast their lot with Michigan Tech’s efforts. A transplant after 30 years on staff at the University of Michigan, he is now the director of Great Lakes initiatives for Tech’s research center. “Tackling these difficult and multidisciplinary issues requires an organization that brings together dedicated researchers, from all areas, to focus their collective energies and expertise on problems never before faced,” he said. “… The Great Lakes Research Center is that 21st century space.”

Far from being an administrator, Meadows is here as a scientist who is attempting to figure out how atmospheric changes have affected Great Lakes water levels. “The question we’re asking is, are the Great Lakes warming to the point that it will change the ice dynamics of the lake system?” he said.

Ice buildup in the Lake Superior area is an indicator of whether it will be a low-water year throughout the region. Heavy winters generate ice and snow that melt into runoff that trickles its way through the lake system, raising waters. But the lowering of lake levels, even by a few inches, can drastically reshape shorelines.

“We’re in our 12th year of low lake levels, and that has caused changes,” Meadows said. “People now have become used to wide beaches in areas that did not have them before.”

Meadows’ colleague, Nancy Auer, is taking the next step by studying the impact of those atmospheric changes on the fishery. Temperature changes can offset the natural cycle of the fish, causing food sources to develop earlier than normal, whether the fish are ready to eat them.

The center houses a supercomputer allowing researchers to put their samples and data through a high-powered modeling program that helps map cause and effect, and predict the impacts of atmospheric change.

Over the last seven years, Michigan anglers have been forced to watch as the population of their beloved Chinook salmon has dwindled in Lake Huron. It is the slow change of an ecosystem brought on by a collection of factors that include invasive species.

But the work Casey Huckins is doing with the coaster brook trout in the Salmon Trout River could be a ray of hope. “Our original goal was to study the life history of the fish,” he said. “But it has turned into a conservation biology project.” The associate professor in aquatic ecology is overseeing the small remaining population of coaster brook trout. Like the Chinook, coasters were once sought after by people from all over the state. Now, after decades of declining numbers, the population is showing signs of a reversal. Studying the rehabilitation of the coaster brook trout may provide keys to reserving native fish populations throughout the Great Lakes.

And the research center’s laboratories feature equipment for on-site study. “The research we’re doing right now is based in the watershed,” Huckins said. “But what happens in the watershed is often a sign of what will happen in the lakes.”

Michigan Tech’s Joan Schumaker Chadde has traveled the state connecting the public, particularly the young, to nature and the sciences. She’s made several visits to Detroit to educate teachers and students on everything from forest stewardship to basic outdoor education. Now the Great Lakes Research Center will serve as a focal point for those efforts.

Like Chadde, Douglas Oppliger has traveled the region, encouraging young minds to get involved in math and sciences. He has done that by going to area schools and teaching educators how to construct remotely operated underwater vehicles. Those teachers then teach the same set of skills to their students, who utilize them to make their own robots. Instead of having to travel to meet with a few teachers one at a time, Oppliger will now have the space to train teachers in larger groups. “One of our goals is to get students excited about learning,” Chadde said. “And we also have the objective of encouraging students toward careers in the math and science fields.”

Or as Abbott puts it: “Science won’t save these lakes, but a reverence for the lakes will.”

jlynch@detnews.com   (313) 222-2034

Posted on Monday, July 30, 2012 (Archive on Monday, August 06, 2012)
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