Mapping Gives Unprecedented View of Lake George: Data to help understand, preserve ecosystem

Date:  June 29, 2014

Reporter: Stephen Williams

News Outlet: The Daily Gazette

The first phase of the Jefferson Project at Lake George is wrapping up, laying the groundwork for scientists to develop an unprecedented understanding of the ecology of the famed Adirondack lake.

The bottom of the lake has been precisely mapped for the first time, the initial step in a three-year, multi-million dollar scientific research effort aimed at safeguarding the lake's ecosystem and protect the qualities that make it a major tourist destination.

This information is accurate to within a centimeter,” said Bill Jenkins, Substructure’s survey chief. “It’s data that’s never been done before.”

Better understanding of the lake’s subsurface, in turn, should help the state and communities around the lake refine methods for fighting invasive species that are already a significant problem and lay a foundation for other efforts to keep the lake's water clear and healthy.

One of the scientists said this is about understanding the lake from physics to fish, and we will use all this information to protect Lake George,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, a partner in the Jefferson Project, along with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and IBM.

In the phase of work now wrapping up, survey crews from Substructure Inc. of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, have used sophisticated sonar technology to map the entire lake bottom, from Million Dollar Beach all the way to Ticonderoga. The hundreds of thousands of gigabytes of data they've collected will now be analyzed by IBM supercomputers to develop models of how currents move within the lake and thus how invasive species, once in the lake, might spread.

IBM will develop predictive computer programs, using the new knowledge of the lake bottom and multiple other complex factors — ranging from road salt and stormwater runoff to invasive species management — to predict what might happen in the future if trends such as rising salt levels continue.

We will have a much better idea of the questions to ask,” Siy said.

The Substructure research boats are unlike any others in the world, using sensitive sonar mounted on the bottom of the hull and GPS technology to take precise measurements through the water and analyze whether the hidden bottom at a particular location is primarily rock, sand or mud. That information offers clues about where invasive species found in the lake — Asian clams, zebra mussels, milfoil, each of which likes a specific habitat — might turn up next.

One product of the research, which the public will get to see later this year at RPI’s Darren Freshwater Institute in Bolton Landing, is a multi-colored depth map of the lake showing its contours, from the shallows around the Lake George Islands to the 200-foot-deep trenches deep in the lake that are likely the remnants of ancient rivers.

It’s impressive,” Siy said Monday aboard the Substructure mapping boat Mintaka.

The Jefferson Project was announced by the three partners last June. The hiring of Substructure was the first step in the actual research.

Substructure began work in November with one and later two boats, continued until the lake iced over, then returned this spring with one boat to finish mapping the 32-mile-long lake, whose world-renown beauty and importance to the local economy is hard to overstate. Lake George tourism pumps about $450 million each year into Warren County and $1 billion throughout the region, according to the Jefferson Project partners.

At the height of its work, Substructure was putting in 12- to 15-hour days, seven days a week, said company President Tom Reis, who has been on hand for the entire project. About 1,500 hours have been spent surveying on the water, including mapping the shallows around dozens of islands through a painstakingly slow process employing side-scan sonar.

The Narrows took us almost 20 days,” Reis said.

Substructure's work, and the other research being done by the Jefferson Project, will make Lake George the best-understood body of water in the world, Reis said.

While it's a large lake, its watershed is well-defined and factors like runoff from road salting in winter can be measured, he noted.

It’s small enough that it's actually a very controlled ecosystem,” Reis said.

The research effort is being dubbed The Jefferson Project in homage to President Thomas Jefferson, who more than 200 years ago visited Lake George and called it “without comparison the most beautiful water I ever saw.”

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