There’s a “dead zone” in Lake George’s southern basin, and no one knows quite why.
Harmful invasive species such as the tiny Asian clam spread from bay to bay, and no one knows quite how.
Those and other water quality questions about Lake George — including why the lake is getting saltier — could be answered under a new “smart lake” data-gathering project announced Thursday.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM and the Fund for Lake George will be partners in The Jefferson Project at Lake George, which they said will be perhaps the most sophisticated lake research effort in the world.
The three-year, multimillion-dollar project will build on scientific data gathered over the past 30 years by RPI’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute but use electronic sensors to collect far more information on water quality and lake currents, then analyze the data with supercomputers.
“This is an effort to monitor, understand and hopefully remediate the water quality of Lake George,” RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson said at a news conference Thursday at The Sagamore Resort on the lake’s shores in Bolton Landing.
The goal is to collect and analyze enough data to make projections about the future of the lake as it continues to experience road salt and stormwater runoff and threats from invasive species.
“So many people love living here that water quality is declining as more people move to its shores,” Jackson said.
The 32-mile-long lake in the southeastern Adirondacks is surrounded by a combination of wild, state-owned mountains and developed hillsides, with development concentrated in the southern basin. The lake is at the heart of the local economy, with visitors drawn by its famously clear waters spending $450 million each year in Warren County and $1 billion in the region, according to the project partners.
The research effort is being dubbed The Jefferson Project in homage to President Thomas Jefferson, who visited Lake George and famously called it “without comparison the most beautiful water I ever saw.”
The partner organizations said they will be using advanced data analysis, computer visualizations, new scientific and experimental methods and simulation techniques to try to gain an unprecedented scientific understanding of the lake.
IBM will provide weather modeling and sensor technologies it now uses to monitor weather and water quality in Rio de Janiero; Galway Bay, Ireland; and the lower Hudson River.
The Lake George work could serve as a model for aquatic environmental evaluations around the world, said John E. Kelly III, senior vice president and director of IBM Research.
“It’s big enough to have complex problems and small enough that we can understand them,” Kelly said. “We chose Lake George because we believe it is at a tipping point. We are still at the point where we can have a dramatic effect on the lake’s future.”
The data gathered will allow scientists to offer answers about how road salt, increased land development and other factors could impact the lake in the future.
Information already collected by the Darrin Fresh Water Institute shows that the salt content of the lake has risen from 5.9 parts per million in 1980 to 15.7 ppm in 2009 and algae levels have risen 50 percent. Lake officials are currently trying to control five invasive plant or animal species.
“Darrin’s work has revealed a lake at risk of irreversible decline,” said Eric Siy, executive director of the Fund for Lake George.
The data will allow researchers to develop computer models of how the lake might change in the future, said Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky.
“We’ve got 30 years of data already, and this will take it to the next level,” he said. “The ways this data can be modelled are endless.”
An unused building at the Darrin Institute will be remodeled to house the new program.
Kelly said the next six months will be spent developing models based on available data, and those models will be used to determine the best locations for the new high-tech sensors, which will feed “real time” information to researchers.
The sensors will provide data that will help answer questions such as how currents circulate in the lake and how surface weather influences the movement of below-surface currents.
“Whatever is stressing the lake will interact with something else, and we need to know what that is,” Jackson said.
She said the overall goal of The Jefferson Project is to bring scientific data to the public policy debates that occur in communities around the lake and in state government.
“With environmental issues, there’s a lot of emotion and advocacy on all sides, but we think that policy-making can be better informed,” Jackson said.
The initial length of the project is three years, but Kelly said the research will be a long-term effort. Beyond calling it “multimillion-dollar,” the partners would not discuss the cost.
“We intend this to be a platform that will last for generations,” Kelly said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, issued a statement praising the environmental initiative.
“It is imperative that we protect the environmental health of the lake for local residents, for visitors to the area and for future generations to enjoy,” he said.