Two Yellow Buoys sits for an interview with the Big Ten Network

September 6th, 2016 by

This story originally appeared on the Big Ten Network’s website,

Lake Michigan contains approximately six quadrillion gallons of water. Monitoring the weather and lake conditions isn’t just a big job, it’s a potentially dangerous one for humans.

Luckily, we have buoys for that. Specifically, number 45170 located off the coast of Michigan City, Indiana and 45174, located in the waters off Wilmette, Illinois. The two markers are run by the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program and staffed by researchers and specialists from Purdue University and the University of Illinois.

Not content to merely send real-time data about wind speed, lake temperatures and wave height to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help fishermen and beachgoers alike determine the best day to hit the water, the two buoys also run their own Twitter account, @TwoYellowBuoys, where they send out information about the lake and photos.

Armed with a buoy-to-English dictionary,’s LiveBIG staff talked with the two buoys about conservation issues, their Big Ten loyalties and how they spend the off-season.

BTN LiveBIG: You spent the entire summer out on the lake. That sounds like a dream job.

Michigan City: Some days are definitely better than others, but if you don’t mind occasional rain and high winds it’s great.

Wilmette: And luckily we don’t get seasick!

BTN LiveBIG: What are you out there to do?

Michigan City: We’re weather buoys, so we’re covered in sensors that measure things like wind speed, wave height, and water temperature. We take readings all the time but what gets logged is either the average or the maximum of a given variable over the past 10 minutes.

Wilmette: Except [the] webcams.

Michigan City: Yeah, yeah, for those of us who have webcams, those images or videos are usually sent out once per hour.

BTN LiveBIG: So you don’t both have webcams?

Wilmette: Nope. I have one but Michigan City doesn’t.

Michigan City: But I have a chain of temperature sensors that runs from the surface to the bottom of the lake. Which is also pretty darn cool. Anglers love me because I help them determine when and where to fish different species, like salmon or perch.

BTN LiveBIG: How do people get access to your data?

Michigan City: Our data are transmitted to the main Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant website, NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center,, and the Great Lakes Observing System Data Portal. Other websites sometimes pick up a couple of variables here and there, and you can always email our handlers to get copies of old data.

BTN LiveBIG: Are you out on the lake all year? What happens in the winter?

Wilmette: Oh no. We’re tough, but not that tough.

Michigan City: In October or November, we get pulled in for the winter. People have to clean us off (quagga mussels REALLY like us), take care of our sensors and make repairs, sometimes make upgrades, whatever’s needed. It’s a nice vacation.

BTN LiveBIG: What was the most extreme weather pattern you’ve seen this year?

Wilmette: I’ve seen some crazy storms, but there was one on July 23 that hit me really hard. The day started [calm] like this. But by early evening winds and waves were building. Looking back, you can see the ride I took during the storm, and how much harder we were hit than our buds on the eastern side of the lake.

BTN LiveBIG: What’s the most important conservation issue facing the Great Lakes?

Michigan City: That depends on who you ask and where you are. A lot of people are worried about aquatic invasive species and habitat loss, mainly because they cause big changes in the system.

Wilmette: Don’t forget nutrients!

Michigan City: Yes, nutrients can exacerbate some issues, like the harmful algal blooms that happen in some parts of the Great Lakes. We actually have buddies over in Lake Erie who help monitor those.

BTN LiveBIG: Do you ever wish you could take a selfie?

Wilmette: First we’d need arms. We are pretty, though.

Michigan City: But not as pretty as Lake Michigan.

BTN LiveBIG: You’re a part of the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant program. For those that don’t know, what is that group’s purpose?

Michigan City: Well, Sea Grant is actually a network of 33 programs that extend from Alaska to Puerto Rico and Hawaii to Maine—even Guam! Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant focuses on using the latest science to help people in southern Lake Michigan and across the Great Lakes solve natural resource problems in sustainable ways.

Wilmette: So we’re basically rock stars, because we’re bringing the data that drives the science.

BTN LiveBIG: This is a joint effort with the University of Illinois and Purdue. How did that come about?

Michigan City: The partnership between the University of Illinois and Purdue University goes way back to the early 1980s. There’s a great story about it here.

Wilmette: And while our main squeezes are at Purdue and the U of I, we’re also supported by awesome people at NOAA, LimnoTech, Inc., the National Weather Service, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Great Lakes Observing System, and many local shop owners or users of our data.

BTN LiveBIG: Wilmette Buoy, do you tend to root for U of I? Are you a loyal Purdue fan, Michigan City?

Michigan City: I am a Boilermaker through and through.

Wilmette: It’s hard for me. Both Purdue and the U of I have done me good turns, but Northwestern is so close. I guess I’m a fair weather fan.

BTN LiveBIG: I see what you did there. What’s next for you? Do you think you’ll eventually work in an ocean or are you happy with the Great Lakes?

Wilmette: We’re made especially for the Great Lakes, so we’ll probably never see work in the ocean. But there are good buoys doing good work all over the world.

Thanks to Carolyn Foley, assistant research coordinator for the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, for speaking on behalf of her buoy colleagues. Remember, for updates and insights about life on Lake Michigan, follow @TwoYellowBuoys on Twitter. 

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.

Invasive plants from water gardens and aquariums must be disposed of properly

August 31st, 2016 by


This story originally appeared on the Illinois Natural History Survey website.

When clearing out the foliage from an aquarium or backyard water garden this fall, keep water hyacinth and other invasive plants out of streams, rivers, and other waterways.

Water hyacinth has been described as “the world’s worst aquatic weed,” lovely in the garden, but a nuisance in the river, according to Andy Casper, director of the Illinois River Biological Station of the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois.  At this time of year, the plant can be spread easily.

“Water hyacinth is the aquatic version of kudzu,” Casper said.  “It grows faster than any other plant competing with it, quickly taking over a pond or river-bed.”

As the plant spreads out over a water surface, it blocks the sun, so native plants can’t survive.  Fish that once hid amongst the underwater plants to hunt for their prey and young fish that hide from predators experience a changed habitat.

Additionally, in the fall as the water hyacinth dies, it sinks to the river bottom, decomposes, taking the oxygen out of the water in the process.  Too little oxygen can lead to large fish kills in the winter when oxygen is naturally in short supply.

Deliberately dumping water hyacinth plants in the waterways will cause the plant to spread, as well as composting plants too close to a river, stream, or drainage ditch. Backyard flooding can also cause the invasive plant to spread into nearby surface water areas.

In one case in which plants spread, an individual composted water hyacinth plants on a pile at the edge of a yard located close to the river.  The result was a big pile of water hyacinth down river, Casper said.

“All it takes is one good growing season, and the plants take over,” he said.

In a survey of the entire Illinois River from Hennepin, Illinois to Joliet, Illinois by airplane and boat, INHS staff discovered 15 individual water hyacinth beds in the river. In addition, fish surveys also showed that whole water hyacinth seeds were present in the digestive tracts of carp, indicating a threat of dispersal of the seeds to other areas. Seeds were present in 27 percent of the digestive tracts of the common carp examined, regardless of their proximity to water hyacinth beds.

For proper disposal of water hyacinth, place plants in a plastic garbage bag and throw them away. Keep all plant parts away from waterbodies because the seeds are tiny and can be missed by the naked eye.

Water hyacinth is an economically important plant for the water gardening industry.  For this reason, the sale of water hyacinth has not yet been prohibited by the State of Illinois, as the debate continues on whether it survives a cold winter, according to Pat Charlebois, INHS aquatic ecologist.  Many states, and the City of Chicago have prohibited the sale of this plant.

Water hyacinth is just one of many invasive aquatic plants that should not be discarded in waterways.  Hydrilla, a formerly common aquarium plant, is another plant that carries a financial toll when it spreads uncontrolled.  Plants such as these clog waterways, impeding boat navigation.  With government cleanup, millions of dollars may be spent, and recreational areas may be closed, reducing recreation-based incomes.

“Hydrilla is such an aggressive plant and spreads so quickly that it can take years to completely remove it in lakes and rivers,” Charlebois said.  “Because of this, the State of Illinois has an early detection and rapid response plan in place in case hydrilla shows up in an area.”

Charlebois and colleague Greg Hitzroth, INHS outreach specialist, are seeking to change the behavior of people who purchase and use plants for outdoor water gardens and indoor aquariums, encouraging them to dispose of all aquatic plants in sealed plastic bags in the trash.  Consumers can find a list of Illinois’ invasive plants at The State of Illinois regulates some plants, but others, which are not regulated, can be just as much of a nuisance.

Consumers often look to retailers for advice on which plants to purchase and how to care for and dispose of them.

“We partner with retailers, educating them not only on which species should not be sold, but also giving them alternatives,” Hitzroth said.  “We have had success with this effort because most retailers want to do the right thing.”

There’s a loophole in these efforts, though.

“A huge market for aquatic plants is offered for sale online, which can be difficult to regulate,” Charlebois said.  “This is a sticky wicket because retailers in another state may not know which plants cannot be sold or shipped to customers in Illinois.”

Charlebois and Hitzroth have been working with wholesalers, retailers, scientists, hobbyists, consumers, and others and attending hobbyists’ tradeshows to create outreach material that aims to prevent the spread of aquatic invaders in trade.

They also worked on a statewide campaign about invasive species.  Part of that effort is the Release Zero campaign, which aims to provide suggested alternatives to release plants based on published guidelines for teachers and water garden hobbyists from the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force.

More information about aquatic invaders in the market place (AIM) can be found at Alternatives to the release of aquatics in trade can be found at

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