From fish to physics

On board the Blue Heron: In an effort to cram as much data collection as they possibly can into each four- or five-day voyage, the six scientists on the Blue Heron—the research boat owned by the Large Lakes Observatory (LLO) at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD)—work round the clock, getting only a few hours of sleep be­tween research stations.

What scientists are doing: UMD scientists are making eight voyages to collect data at 12 sites in Lake Superior’s western arm. The team collects and analyzes simultaneous data on aquatic ecology, phytoplankton abundance, nutrient distribution, biochemistry, carbon cycling, zooplankton ecology, fish ecology, and biological productiv­ity—a “fish to physics” approach.

Why the research matters: The study will provide a solid baseline of data to help future researchers—even 20 or 30 years from now—understand how issues like climate change affect Lake Superior. Though the lake seems timeless, it’s changed dramatically in recent years. Surface summer water temperatures have increased by 5°F over the past 30 years, and maximum ice cover on the lake has decreased from almost 40 percent in the early 1970s to about 10 percent today.

How giving makes a difference: When Adam Sellheim, a 2008 UMD graduate, died tragically during a 2011 boating trip in northern Minnesota, his family established the Adam R. Sellheim Memorial for Blue Heron Student Support to honor his life. The fund allows one UMD undergraduate class each year to learn about Lake Superior aboard the Blue Heron—an experience that Sellheim remem­bered fondly from his own days at UMD.

What's next: Bob Sterner, LLO director, would like to raise funds so even more U of M students have the same opportunity. “Nobody forgets the experience of being on Earth’s largest body of water on that big beautiful boat,” he says.

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