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Taking On the Waves: Bayfield County

The UW’s Sea Grant Institute helps predict when destructive waves will endanger boaters.

September 22, 2016
Erica Peterson kayaks

For the community of Bayfield, Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and its sea caves are an economic engine. Every year, the park and the breathtaking caves attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and bring in more than $44 million in spending to the area.

Kayakers are an important tourism segment for the area, with thousands of paddlers crossing Lake Superior’s cold, clear waters to view the sea caves during the spring, summer, and fall. In recent years, four kayaker deaths have been blamed on wave and weather conditions. For national lakeshore superintendent Bob Krumanker and UW–Extension Sea Grant coastal engineer Gene Clark MS’87, this was unacceptable.

The two took action. They contacted Dr. Chin Wu at UW–Madison, an expert in dangerous waves and tracking conditions along shorelines. They sought the help of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, who raised funds for the project, wrote letters of support, and coordinated with community partners. From this collaborative effort, the Sea Caves Watch System was born.

The project would not have been possible without UW–Madison.

“We want to and need to secure the ability of our visitors to participate in the adventure found in the Apostle Islands National Park,” says Erica Peterson (pictured above), president and board member of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Dr. Wu worked to create a system that used cameras and sensors to monitor and measure the quality of the waves present around the sea caves. The system they developed is now able to alert kayakers to wave conditions to allow them to make intelligent decisions.

Approximately 96,000 people have accessed the Sea Caves Watch system website per year since it was launched in 2012.

One of the reasons why the system is so effective is that it shows kayakers conditions they cannot possibly see on their own. That’s because Meyers Beach, where most kayakers put in for their trips to the sea caves, is generally calm — even when the waves are raging at the sea caves location. The system is so effective that it has won the U.S. Department of Interior Safety Award.

“Dr. Wu and graduate student Josh Anderson developed an amazing system and continue to provide much-needed technical support,” says Peterson. “The project would not have been possible without UW–Madison.”

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