Ship boat

On its first mission to the Great Lakes, the NOAA vessel will sonar map Lake Erie

CLEVELAND, OH – What’s under Lake Erie?

The answer is no complete mystery to Great Lakes sailors, but parts of the lakebeds off Ohio and Pennsylvania have not been surveyed since the 1940s and the nautical charts on which commercial vessels rely have long awaited an update.

For this reason, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is sending one of its four deep-sea hydrographic survey vessels, the Thomas Jefferson, to the Great Lakes for several months this year to sonar map the lake bed in high traffic areas.

The mission marks the Jefferson’s first visit to the Great Lakes and the first visit by a NOAA sounding vessel since Lake Huron was charted off Alpena in the early 1990s.

The 2022 mission is part of an intensified effort to map the Great Lakes in recent years and will also involve surveying parts of the Detroit River and Lake Michigan off Wisconsin.

“It’s been a long time,” said Matthew Jaskoski, commanding officer of the Thomas Jefferson, which sets sail for the St. Lawrence Seaway in April after a drydock refit in its home port of Norfolk and ocean mapping offshore. of Virginia.

The Jefferson’s crew are delighted with the trip, he said.

“The seaway is one of the most difficult elements of navigation a sailor can do,” Jaskoski said. “The crew is very eager to get to a new place.”

Once in Lake Erie, the Jefferson will use multibeam sonar to create 3D images of the lake bed. The focus is on the approaches to Cleveland Harbor, as well as South Bass Island, home to the village of Put-In-Bay, a tourist mecca that attracts visitors by ferry.

In Pennsylvania, the ship will survey around the peninsula of Près Isle State Park, a sandy peninsula that juts out into the lake and creates the peninsula of Près Isle Bay in Erie.

The Jefferson will also send a pair of smaller boats which it carries on board and deploys with a winch system on the Detroit River, where they will survey the Ambassador Bridge and the tunnel between the United States and Canada.

In Lake Erie, the Jefferson will be moored in Cleveland when not working offshore. The 208-foot-long vessel, launched in 1991 as the US Navy’s Littlehales, carries a crew of 35 and can be deployed for weeks at a time.

The vessel will remain in Lake Erie; though parts of this year’s mission involve mapping Lake Michigan off the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast, a 962-square-mile area that was designated as NOAA’s newest National Marine Sanctuary in 2021.

This work will be carried out by private contractors.

“We’re back to surveying in the Great Lakes,” said Thomas Loeper, director of Great Lakes navigation for NOAA’s Office of Coastal Survey.

The last time NOAA sent a ship of the size and capacity of the Jefferson to the Great Lakes was in the early 1990s, when the NOAAS Whiting, a 1960s ship with a long history, charted Lake Huron in what became Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The 2022 assignment follows $17 million worth of contract surveys in the Strait of Mackinac in 2019, southern Lake Michigan around Chicago and the industrialized Indiana coastline in 2020 and parts of Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay and Lake Michigan’s Green Bay in 2021.

NOAA, which is part of the US Department of Commerce, studies areas with heavy maritime traffic. The primary purpose is to update navigational charts, but the data ends up being widely used by scientists and state and federal agencies.

“It powers fisheries, navigational safety, ice models, hydrodynamic models and geological work,” Loeper said. “The whole idea of ​​surveying is to do it once to feed many different products, not just within NOAA, but other state and government agencies and tribal groups.”

The mapping work uses a scanning technique known as ‘lawn mowing’, in which large swaths of the lake bed are surveyed in a grid pattern.

The work often ends up locating undiscovered wrecks.

“It’s not uncommon at all,” Jaskoski said. “We are finding new sinkings, new obstructions, things on the bottom and changes in the nature of the seabed.”

“That’s the main reason we’re there: to look for things that aren’t on the maps, but should be.”

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