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From the Jefferson Project: “We’re Eager to Share Our Progress and Plans with Lake George”

Whether you want to dive into a lake clean enough to drink, safely fill your glass from the kitchen sink, economically buy fresh fruits and vegetables, prepare for events like the drought gripping California and flooding in Texas, or protect biodiversity, water security is a global issue that touches each of us.

Thirty-five years of monitoring the chemistry and algae in Lake George by scientists at Rensselaer’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute, with support from The FUND for Lake George, have demonstrated that the lake is changing. These changes were documented in our joint report—The State of the Lake: Thirty Years of Water Quality Monitoring at Lake George. The findings and recommendations of the report underscored the need for more study to answer critical questions about the present and future health of the lake. Chloride inputs from road salt have tripled, algae has increased 33%, and invasive species have been introduced. The critical question is what these changes mean in relation to the past, present, and future of Lake George. The answers to these questions are relevant to freshwater supplies around the world, many of which face similar threats.

In 2013, Rensselaer, The FUND for Lake George, and IBM founded a partnership to answer complex questions on lake health through an unprecedented approach to scientific research. Inspired by Thomas Jefferson, who described Lake George as, “the most beautiful water I ever saw,” this research endeavor was named “The Jefferson Project at Lake George.” The project aims to make Lake George the global model for sustained ecosystem understanding and protection.

To realize this goal, the Jefferson Project team is deploying a sophisticated array of sensors that measure weather, runoff, circulation, and water chemistry. Whereas the first 35 years of research was conducted by laboriously hand-collecting samples for analysis in the lab, producing approximately 170,000 measurements of lake chemistry data, a single sensor (of the 14 already in use) can take more than 10,000 measurements in one day.

Data from the sensor network are transmitted to supercomputers at IBM and RPI for analysis and modeling. At DFWI’s new Helen-Jo and John E. Kelly III ’78 Data Visualization Laboratory, researchers can project these data—and computer models that use these data—in real time on a 9×12 foot, high-resolution visualization wall.  For more accessible data demonstrations, The FUND’s Center for Lake George hosts a smaller screen with regular public showings.  The stage is now set for the data capture and discovery phase of this leading-edge project.

We started deploying sensors around the lake in fall 2014. As we mark the two-year anniversary of the Jefferson Project on June 26, we continue to add sensors to monitor the physical and chemical conditions of the water.

This summer, we will also begin to systematically measure the abundance and distribution of plants and animals to understand the lake’s food web. Such data help us create advanced models of how the lake is affected by nature and human activities. As part of that work, the Jefferson Project is developing new tools, including image-recognition software that identifies plankton species from photos collected via a GPS-enabled camera towed behind a boat. Conventional sampling with a net and jar is not obsolete, but its power, and our own power as scientists and citizens, is vastly amplified with these emerging technological approaches.

This year we will also be launching experiments in the lake and the lab to isolate the separate and combined effects of excess nutrients, road salt, and invasive species.  While sensors can tell us how the lake is changing, experiments can tell us why the lake is changing and, when combined with modeling, enable us to predict how changes – such as new invasive species or further increases in salt – will alter the lake in the future.

We also want to understand the lake’s ecological past. Our scientists will take soil cores in the lake and examine layers of soil deposited over thousands of years. By examining fossils and chemicals in each layer, we can uncover lake conditions when Native Americans first arrived, when colonists arrived and clear-cut the forests, and today. Such studies provide a long-term perspective on the historic and pristine states of the lake.

As we begin our third year, the Jefferson Project includes more than 60 scientists from around the world with a diversity of expertise dedicated to understanding the lake’s past, present, and future so that it can be better protected. While the project will lead to greater understanding of the lake, the Lake George community will decide its future. We hope our work will contribute to informed decisions that preserve the beauty which so impressed Thomas Jefferson.

We are eager to share our latest progress and future plans with the Lake George community. To celebrate the start of our third year, we’re hosting an Open House and everyone is invited. Please join us on Thursday, June 25from 10 am – 2 pm (Darrin Fresh Water Institute, 5060 Lake Shore Drive, Bolton Landing). We look forward to meeting you!