Getting to the Bottom of the Problem

Brian Nearing
July 5, 2014
The Times Union

To understand forces that are slowly clouding Lake George's legendary clear waters, a unique 3-D map is being made of the lake and surrounding mountain streams that feed it.

The map is the first step in the multimillion-dollar Jefferson Project, which was announced last fall between IBM, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Fund for Lake George to make the lake the most “wired” on the planet.

The goal is to see what is happening with the lake in real time and use the information to solve problems that threaten water quality, according to Eric Siy, director of the Fund for Lake George. Ever-increasing levels of road salts, chemical fertilizers that feed algae, and invasive species such as the Asian clam, all threaten the water.

Over the last three decades, salt levels in the lake have nearly tripled and the amount of algae has gone up 50 percent. If those numbers continue, the lake's $1 billion tourism industry could suffer.

“This is not just science for science's sake,” Siy said. “In some respects, this lake is being loved to death, and that stems from a lack of understanding. We want to use data to solve the real problems facing the lake.”

IBM and RPI officials have called the lake an ideal laboratory for advanced research on aquatic ecosystems. Water is a “critical issue around the world,” RPI President Shirley Jackson said.

The system envisioned here a network of up to 40 sensor-equipped buoys to monitor water chemistry, currents, stream flows and other variables could become a global business available to places struggling to protect water quality.

This summer, IBM will install two floating sensors on the lake, along with three stream monitoring stations and four land-based weather stations, said Harry R. Kolar, a senior IBM engineer. More sensors are planned in coming years.

Meanwhile, RPI is building a new “data visualization laboratory” at its Darrin Freshwater Institute in Bolton Landing. The center will be linked to an IBM supercomputer that can perform 188 trillion operations per second as it tracks a steady stream of data coming in from the sensor network.

“This can be a global model, a quantum leap,” said center Director Sandra Nierzicki-Bauer. The center could start operating sometime this year and eventually feed information to up to 20 research scientists.

Now, a sonar-based survey to map the entire lake bottom — which covers more than 44 square miles — is just wrapping up.

“We have taken more than 150 billion sonar soundings of the lake bottom,” said Tom Reis, president of Substructure, a New Hampshire-based marine services firm hired for the project.

An aerial survey has already produced a topographic map of the surrounding Adirondack mountains where 145 streams drain into the lake.

Between the lake bottom and mountains, the high-resolution, 3-D map of the lake and its watershed will cover about 230 square miles. By comparison, the city of Albany is 22 square miles.

On a recent trip on the 31-foot research vessel Orion, Reis and his crew demonstrated a sophisticated twin-beam sonar system that scans the lake bottom, feeding data to a modeling computer so advanced that its export overseas is controlled by the U.S. Defense and State departments.

To perform its mission, the Orion was modified Reis said the total cost of the vessel now exceeds $1 million to contain two hull-mounted sonar arrays. Its hull has been specially treated to inhibit the flow of bubbles along the hull, since bubbles can taint sonar readings.

Special cellphone signal boosters also were added around the lake so the survey vessel's GPS system would function accurately.

Since the beginning of the survey last fall, the Orion and its sister ship, the Mintaka, have logged more than 2,000 hours on the lake, Reis said.

What results is called a bathymetric survey — a detailed image of the lake bottom so precise it can show the most popular fishing areas, marked by spots where outrigger balls, part of sport fishing tackle, bounced along the lake bottom.

“We can see schools of fish, we can see wind-driven currents in the lake,” Reis said. Also visible are scattered beds of an important native lake plant, called nitella, which can rise up to six feet off the bottom.

“We have even located seven major rock shoals that were not on any of the current navigation maps,” Siy said. One of the shoals comes within five feet of the water's surface.

“So this project already has a public service component to it,” he said.

“But we are harnessing big data for an even bigger purpose, sustaining the health of a natural treasure now under direct threat,” Siy said. “As drinking water source and lifeblood of the regional economy, Lake George provides the ideal place to show the world how a complex natural system can be deliberately studied for the purpose of sustained protection.”

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