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New radar allows real-time tracking of Straits surface currents for first time

Michigan Technological University
Researchers from Michigan Technological University test a high-frequency radar installation on the south shore of the Straits of Mackinac.

Real-time reports of the currents in the Straits of Mackinac will soon be available if the installation of a new pair of high-frequency radar, one on either side of the waterway, goes according to plan.

Better monitoring of the currents in the straits will increase safety for marine traffic and improve responses to oil or other chemical spills, researchers said.

Currents in the straits have previously been tracked by a network of buoys, but each buoy can only measure the current at its particular location, and they don’t work in the winter, when ice renders them inoperable.

In contrast, the radar system, developed and installed by Michigan Technological University, will track currents year-round, regardless of weather, and have a live view of a large section of the straits, said MTU marine engineering professor Guy Meadows.

Still, it can’t see the entirety of the waterway. “There’s that big beautiful bridge in the way,” Meadows said.

If the first pair of radar works well, the team will seek funding for another pair on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge, said Meadows.

This type of radar is common on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. More than 100 of them monitor currents there. The radar can see further in salt water than they can in freshwater.

This is the first time high-frequency radar will be used in the Great Lakes, said Ana Sirviente, the chief technology officer for the Great Lakes Observing System. The Straits of Mackinac are a good test for the system, she said, both because they’re narrow, so the limited visibility is less important, and because the currents there are so complicated.

“It’s a treacherous location. It’s not simple by any means, and the traffic that it sees is high, both commercial traffic, ferries, and recreational users,” Sirviente said.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.