BOLTON LANDING — One of the things that makes Lake George famous as the “Queen of American Lakes” is its water clarity, but its waters are getting murkier.
Salt levels are rising, too, likely due to winter road maintenance, and there’s long been a concern about septic systems discharging algae-feeding nitrogen into the lake.
Scientists are just now beginning to collect the kind of data to help them understand what it all might mean, with deployment of high-tech sensors around the lake and in some of its tributaries.
Their installation is part of the Jefferson Project, announced last year and intended to bring cutting-edge data collection and analysis to bear on the lake’s complex ecology, making it what scientists say will be “the smartest lake in the world.”
“Scientific inquiry is required to understand and mitigate stresses to the lake,” said Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, who spoke Friday at an event to mark the opening of the Darrin Freshwater Institute’s new lake data visualization center, which she said is a key part of the multi-million dollar research effort.
RPI and its Darrin Institute in Bolton Landing are among the main players in the Jefferson Project, a long-term effort launched in 2013 to increase scientific understanding of the southern Adirondack lake surrounded by scenic mountains and lined with villages, resorts and waterfront homes and businesses.
“We cannot take a simple view. Four complex environmental systems are interacting here,” Jackson said.
Those factors include weather, runoff from the lake’s watershed and contaminants in that runoff, water circulation within the lake and the lake’s food web, she said.
It’s generally thought the lake, whose beauty makes it central to the regional tourism economy, is being stressed by things like road salt runoff, invasive species and the impacts of human development, especially around the Southern Basin.
“Most of the water quality measurements we take are declining,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, which is partnering in the Jefferson Project with RPI and IBM Corp., which is providing the sensors and computing power. “The threats to the lake are mounting, and we need to gain the strongest possible understanding of Lake George.”
Over the last year, in the first phase of the research, the bottom contours of the 32-mile-long glacial lake were measured with precision, using high-tech, boat-mounted sonar devices. Color-coded video maps of the lake contours were unveiled Friday at the new visualization center, to be known as the Helen-Jo and John E, Kelly III ’78 Data Visualization Laboratory. John Kelly, a 1978 RPI graduate, a senior vice-president at IBM and one of the driving forces behind the project, endowed the building with a gift of undisclosed size.
“We are pleased to be able to endow such a technologically advanced laboratory in support of the Jefferson Project, thereby helping to preserve Lake George for future generations,” said Kelly, who added that he’s visited the lake his entire life.
Kelly said the data-collection and analysis techniques being pioneered at Lake George could serve a models for other lakes across the country and around the world.
With the initial mapping finished, researchers have begun installing sophisticated sensors around the lake and in tributaries that will measure factors like temperature, pH and algae levels and water chemistry and feed the information into IBM computers. Researchers said they will learn what happens in the lake during storms, how water moves under the ice during winter and how changes could impact the invasive species problems in the lake.
“It’s a really nice marriage of two kinds of science,” said Jeremy Farrell, an RPI post-doctoral researcher. “To know in real time when something strange is happening in the lake and watch it unfold, it’s really kind of unprecedented.”
The information will be used to design solutions to problems, officials said, and also to create models for how the lake might change if trends such as increases in water salinity continue or clarity continues to decline.
“Lake George is the perfect laboratory for such an endeavor,” said Jeffrey Killeen, chairman of the Fund for Lake George. “It is the right size, and it has the right set of dynamics: The lake is still largely pristine and oligotrophic, but it is also environmentally challenged. It sits on the precipice of a very negative water quality decline if its stressors aren’t thoroughly understood, abated and ideally reversed.”
Also Friday, RPI announced the appointment of Rick Relyea, the newly appointed David M. Darrin Senior Endowed Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences, as director of the Jefferson Project.
“We will understand how a lake works and how humans impact the lake with a level of detail that was just not previously imaginable in terms of the amount of data collected and the modeling of that data,” Relyea said.
Relyea came to RPI this year from the University of Pittsburgh, where he was director of an ecological research center, but he grew up in the area and visited Lake George.
“I think we all predict years of collaboration together,” he said.
The effort is known as the Jefferson Project for Thomas Jefferson’s famous description of Lake George as “the most beautiful waters he ever saw.”