Donald Uzarski at the helm of the RV Chippewa
A newly acquired research vessel is opening the door to new possibilities for Great Lakes research for both students and faculty alike at Central Michigan University.
The RV Chippewa—a 32.5-foot boat outfitted with state-of-the-art water monitoring equipment—was purchased by the university this summer for $350,000. The acquisition of the boat was made possible by a $10 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency given to Central Michigan University in 2010 to help study the Great Lakes and their surrounding wetlands.
The university’s Institute for Great Lakes Research shares the boat. The institute is a coalition of students and faculty taking a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the issues facing the Great Lakes basin. The group is led by 23 faculty representing four departments—Biology, Chemistry, Geography and Earth & Atmospheric Sciences.
The vessel is sure to get its share of use with the number of purposes it is slated to serve. It is currently being used in conjunction with a curriculum to help teach high school, undergraduate and graduate students about water quality monitoring. University scientists are also using the RV Chippewa for academic research.
Donald Uzarski, director of the Institute for Great Lakes Research and the boat’s captain, believes the acquisition was necessary for the evolution of the university’s research endeavors.
“We have a very strong Great Lakes’ nearshore program, and we recently hired six additional faculty members, and three of those faculty members do quite a bit of offshore work,” Uzarski said. “And in order to accommodate their research, we knew we had to take the next step and get a vessel that could go to deeper waters and reach out farther.”
The vessel is equipped with the latest monitoring equipment and a small onboard laboratory. It contains everything from bottom samplers that can take deep sediment cores from the bed of Lake Michigan to YSI multiprobes that collect data such as temperature, pH, specific conductance and turbidity, among other parameters.
The boat is currently assisting several projects aimed at analyzing area wetlands. Understanding the Great Lakes’ wetlands is crucial to preserving the health of the lakes themselves. Besides providing a habitat to animal and plant species, the wetlands act as a natural buffer for absorbing pollution and runoff before it reaches the lakes.
One of the projects involves tying elements found in offshore fisheries back to specific Great Lakes’ wetlands.
“We can get a chemical fingerprint of specific wetlands, mainly with strontium and barium, and we can track those fingerprints into otoliths. The otoliths of the fish, or the earholes of the fish, actually accumulate elements daily, and they basically grow like leaves on a tree,” Uzarski said. “And then we have a very precise laser ablation, so we can take trace element samples from within each of those earholes to be able to tell where that fish has been.”
The study could provide insight on the impact that runoff from area wetlands has on local fish communities.
Though the use of the RV Chippewa for environmental research is in its infancy, researchers are hoping that their work might help secure further funding for additional Great Lakes monitoring projects.
“We’re using [the RV Chippewa] as one more tool in our toolbox to continue our research,” Uzarski said.
Top image: Donald Uzarski at the helm of the RV Chippewa (Credit: Central Michigan University)