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Xiaodong Zhang, co-project leader, with the UND Department of Earth System Science and Policy, stands by the buoy that he and his colleagues were to launch Wednesday at Stump Lake. The buoy will measure and monitor changing conditions, water quality and other issues in the Devils Lake Basin as more water is moved from the Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

UND says thieves ransacked scientific buoy

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A scientific buoy owned by UND was apparently damaged by thieves sometime this winter while it was stuck in the ice in Devils Lake, according to a university researcher.

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“The buoy was one piece. When we got it back, it was two pieces,” said Xiaodong Zhang, an earth system science and policy professor. “Someone opened it up.”

When the university was able to get it out of the muck by the Spirit Lake Casino in June, he said he found some wires had been snipped, and the beacon and antenna missing.

The damage caused by thieves and by harsh winter weather is estimated to cost $10,000 to repair.

Zhang said UND’s insurance covers all pieces of equipment worth more than $5,000 so he expects the university will just have to pay the deductible.

The $30,000 buoy carried sensors that measured water quality and reported it by antenna to Zhang’s team.

It’s part of a $3 million project funded by NASA to figure out how the saltiness of the lake water changes through flooding and climate change.

Lost buoy

Zhang said most of the gear in the buoy is useless to the average person and he suspected the thieves didn’t know what to do with most of it, otherwise more things would be missing.

The buoy first went into the water in fall 2011, anchored in the middle of Stump Lake and then Devils Lake, which are connected as one lake because of high water.

In fall 2013, the buoy somehow got detached from its anchor, floated away and stopped reporting its GPS position.

Zhang said he still doesn’t know how the metal anchor wire could come loose that way.

By the time UND’s helicopter pilots found the buoy in December, it was stuck to the ice and couldn’t be removed easily.

Zhang said the buoy, which won’t be repaired until August, will probably just get two months of data this year before it has to be taken in for the winter.

He said he hopes to get started early next year in time for the spring melt, which should get him enough data for the research project.

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Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is content editor for the Herald. He began work at the newspaper in 1999 as a reporter and has covered business, City Hall, higher education and science. Before his current position, he served as night editor. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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