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Ashland lighthouse has new mission as weather station

The Ashland Harbor Breakwater Light is receiving upgrades in technology that have transformed the lighthouse into a weather station. (Photo courtesy of National Park Service)

Having celebrated its centennial last year, the lighthouse that serves as a beacon on Chequamegon Bay is ready for a new job, though it still plans to keep the lights on.

The Ashland Harbor Breakwater Light, as it is officially known, began service as an aid to navigation in 1916. It became automated in 1962 and continues to serve as a navigation beacon today. This year, it will be tasked with a heavier workload, receiving upgrades in technology that have transformed the lighthouse into a weather station.

Since last fall, the station has monitored lake levels and water currents. The new equipment will allow it to monitor weather conditions such as precipitation, wind speed and temperatures. The water-monitoring gear will track lake levels, currents and waves. Another upgrade in the spring will allow water quality to be measured.

The new information is being collected through a real-time data stream by the U.S. Geological Survey at its Middleton, Wis., facilities.

Paul Reneau, a hydrologist with the USGS who is described as a "modern-day lighthouse keeper" by the National Park Service, will keep tabs on the data. He described the new capabilities as being similar to the buoys in the lake.

"It is sort of a standalone," he said. "The closest would be the buoys run by NOAA, (of) which there are about a dozen."

Reneau estimated the cost of the new weather equipment to be about $30,000, plus an additional $20,000 for the water quality sensors. The cost of the original lighthouse, keeper's dwelling and boathouse, when constructed more than 100 years ago, was $24,943.80, according to the Lighthouse Friends website. Great care has been taken not to allow the modern equipment to take away from the lighthouse's historic character.

Mark Vinson, the USGS Lake Superior Biological Station chief, can see the lighthouse from his office in Ashland.

"Its central location in the western part of the bay makes it a good spot for evaluating incoming waters from Fish Creek and other small tributaries along with water the bay exchanges with Lake Superior," he said in a news release.

The station already has seen the new equipment pay off: It tracked what are described as "significant" changes in lake levels during a storm in November 2016. The changes are being attributed to a so-called seiche (pronounced "saysh") that was the result of wind and pressure-driven sloshing of the lake. Time-lapse photographs taken recently also show how quickly ice and water conditions on the lake can change.

David Cooper, cultural resource specialist at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, in a news release called the effort "a great extension of the light's legacy."

The new mission is a cooperative venture between the National Park Service and the USGS. The park service received support to make the improvements from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.