Dangerous Currents

Spending time on the Great Lakes is a primary form of recreation for many people every year. However, all too often the weather patterns of the lakes can rear their ugly heads, causing damage and tragedy. Massive wave systems and rip currents can claim the lives of swimmers, and have been labeled “sneaky waves” because the currents catch people off guard. They have been attributed to 85 deaths and 256 rescues between 2002 and 2013, but the idea of “sneaky waves” didn’t sit well with College of Engineering professor Chin Wu.

Sneaky waves are not as unpredictable as we might think, says Professor Wu. In fact, they are part of observable patterns that, with the right tools and methods, we could reasonably predict—alerting lake-goers of the danger. The factors that contribute to these patterns are many, including changes in weather, and how the current interacts with structures on the shore and natural formations like sandbars and the lake floor. With the expertise of Professor Wu and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, such a system began to take shape.

Thanks to a $200,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Professor Wu has been able to test and implement pilot systems in Port Washington and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and in Duluth, Minnesota. Using the systems he has developed, the programs will be able to better protect the swimmers and economies that rely on the Great Lakes.

The system is called Integrated Nowcast/Forecast Operation System (INFOS), and Professor Wu hopes that it will revolutionize the way that the lakes anticipate and react to potential tragedies.

This undertaking is an example of how university resources can team up with a range of partners to make a huge impact on our region.