Warren County

Advanced research making Lake George “smartest” in world

New "Scenario Engine" allows Jefferson Project to model lake's future
IBM Jefferson Project scientist Mike Kelly, left, explains a mid-lake sensor platform to Stephen Williams.
IBM Jefferson Project scientist Mike Kelly, left, explains a mid-lake sensor platform to Stephen Williams.

BOLTON LANDING — Even on the calmest day, a lot goes on under the surface of Lake George.

Solar-powered sensor platforms moored in the lake are helping scientists understand how much goes on below the surface, measuring the movement of currents, water pH, salinity, and whatever else interests researchers.

On remote command, five high-tech “vertical profilers” can raise and lower various sensors — more than 50 of them throughout the lake — through the shallows or the depths. The equipment is part of the Jefferson Project.

The Jefferson Project is a collaboration among Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM, and the Fund for Lake George to gather a massive amount of data, then use enormous data-crunching computer power to better understand the inner workings of the Adirondack lake, and predict what could happen to it in the future.

“Lake George is, now, the smartest lake in the world,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George, which advocates for the lake’s environmental health and has put around $2.7 million into the Jefferson Project, which started in 2014 and will run indefinitely.

The cutting-edge research could protect Lake George from a variety of threats, he said, and is generating information that is already being used to benefit other lakes that face environmental issues.

The 32-mile-long lake is at the heart of the southeastern Adirondack economy, attracting swimmers, boaters, hikers — don’t forget shoppers — and admirers of stunning scenery. Economic activity tied to the lake is estimated to be worth around $2 billion annually. By consensus, protecting the resource is also protecting the economy.

The Jefferson Project has already mapped the lake bottom in detail, and is continuously gathering information from the more than 50 sensor stations — sensing systems custom designed for this project. There are stations throughout the lake, and in its 10 main tributaries, too.

The result is that it’s now possible to know, for example, how the water’s chemical composition changes when a thunderstorm dumps stormwater into the lake, or the changes on the day after the roads are plowed from a snowstorm.

“We can say what’s happening in the lake minute-by-minute, and that is hugely different [from standard research],” said Mike Kelly, an IBM scientist who has been with the Jefferson Project since 2014. “There’s a whole lot that is happening minute-by-minute, and we want to get a measure of that. It’s the most sensored lake in the world.”

Just this summer, the accumulated knowledge has allowed the research team to launch the “Scenario Engine” — a computer program with the ability, it is believed, to reasonably accurately predict what could happen to Lake George if salt levels rise from winter road salt runoff, a new invasive species arrives, harmful algae blooms develop, and the climate warms.

Literally, the model allows researchers to anticipate how a sewage spill might move through the water, or reverse-engineer a newly discovered spill to its source. Or it can predict which parts of the lake would be most hospitable to a new invasive species.

“For our purposes, the Scenario Engine is literally the Holy Grail,” Siy said recently at RPI’s Darrin Freshwater Institute in Bolton Landing, where the Jefferson Project is based.

The Jefferson Project is named in recognition of founding father Thomas Jefferson, who once said: “Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin … finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves … down to the water-edge: here and there precipices of rock to checker the scene and save it from monotony.”

There’s been a lot of land development since Jefferson’s day, but the lake remains gorgeous. The water is so good that loons — usually associated with remote wilderness lakes and ponds — literally hunt fish within a few hundred feet of developed shoreline. Maintaining that health and beauty is essential, both environmentalists and local government leaders believe.

“While the lake is in pretty good condition, there are changes happening that are not desirable,” said Rick Relyea of RPI, director of the Jefferson Project.

Those changes include an increase in nutrients that can help aquatic weeds flourish — the kind of materials that might get into the water from failing septic systems or lawn runoff. There is also higher salinity than there was 30 years ago. Asian clams and other invasive species have arrived. What the project is documenting is that those factors interact with the natural ecology in different ways, depending on other factors, things like water depth and temperature.

“The biology is complex, the physics is complex, and the chemistry is complex,” said Harry Kolar, a research scientist and the IBM project manager.

One early takeaway: There’s a lot more change going on in the shallows near shore than in the ancient glacial lake’s depths. “The need to look near shore is critical, because that’s where we’re seeing the human impacts,” Siy said.

So far, Lake George has acquired six invasive species, and millions of dollars have been spent fighting them. But no new invasives have arrived since a mandatory boat decontamination program started in 2014. That’s far fewer invasives than are found in many other lakes. There are fears about what would happen to Lake George if the quagga mussel or hydrilla weed, in particular, arrive and spread, upsetting the ecosystem.

In 2018, a vertical profiler from Lake George helped officials at Skaneateles Lake, in the Finger Lakes, understand the source of a harmful algae bloom — proof, said Siy and Relyea, that the research findings can help protect other lakes in the future.

“Especially when it comes to climate change, this kind of modeling is how we ensure Lake George will be the world’s best-protected lake,” Siy said.

Starting this fall, modeling being done with the Scenario Engine will be presented to local government officials. They’re generally already on board with working to protect the lake; all the communities around the lake, for instance, are working to reduce their winter salt use.

The Lake George Association, a conservation and education organization, supports the research effort.

“I think the more you learn about the lake, the better you can make decisions about the lake,” said association Executive Director C. Walter Lender. “We’re making on-the-ground decisions every day about the placement of stormwater systems or septic systems, and the more information we have, the better decisions we can make.”

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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