Syracuse University Professor Charles Driscoll looks back on landmark study, ahead to renewed efforts to fund another
By Zachary Matson
The New York budget includes $500,000 for a new survey of Adirondack lakes. Known as the SCALE survey, it will focus on the threat of climate change and build on a 1980s survey of over 1,000 Adirondack lakes, a landmark study of the effects of acid rain.
Charles Driscoll, Syracuse University Professor of Environmental Systems, is one of the few researchers from that survey who continues to actively study Adirondack lakes. Driscoll participated in a planning session last summer for the new survey. He recently sat for an Explorer interview.
A: It was an unprecedented survey, a huge number of lakes, about half the number of lakes in the Adirondacks. It was a great project to characterize the resource, and particularly to look at the impacts of acid rain. Resulting from that, the Adirondacks became the poster child for acid rain impacts in North America, because of the severity, and the sensitivity of the region, the severity of the air pollution impacts. It was also an important body of work, because it helped characterize the lake resources in the Adirondacks. It was also good for an understanding of the system and the types of fish that were there and water quality conditions.
A: I wasn’t out in the field collecting samples and doing the lab analysis, I was involved in the interpretation. There were two elements of it, there was the physical survey, and that was conducted by the Adirondack Lake Survey Corporation. Technicians were hired and the people who were in charge were state employees from the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation), and they were representing the DEC’s interests. A lot of the lakes were on state land – not all of them, but a lot of them. The state was primarily concerned about fisheries on state lands.
A: At that time, I was a youngish researcher. I was a little bit upset with the people who actually carried out the survey, because I felt they could have made some additional, really critical measurements with limited additional effort, and they chose not to.
I think the data (sets) are very high quality data, and they provide a lot of insight. We were charged with looking at patterns, chemistry patterns, fishery patterns, integrating the chemistry with the fisheries. One of the important charges we had was to try to come up with a classification system to look at physical attributes and judge the sensitivity of lakes, and then make guesstimates on the recovery of those lakes if emissions were reduced.
A big part of the funding for this was from electric utilities, and they were interested in understanding how many of the lakes were naturally acidic and how many were acidified by acid rain. So we spent a lot of time developing models to sort out the natural acidification from the human-generated acidification, and then evaluate the impacts of that on fisheries. It was also thought that some of the lakes, because of their physical characteristics, did not have natural fisheries. So we had to try to go back and look at the characteristics and try to deduce those types of things. I think, to a large degree, given what we know now 40-plus years later, I think we did a pretty good job.
A: I think it had a huge impact, because I think it spawned large lake surveys in other regions. In Canada and in northern Europe, particularly in Norway, Sweden and Finland, people saw what we had done and saw the value of that and then embarked on those types of things.
We had been doing these focus studies on initially about 15 or 17 Adirondack lakes, where we did detailed watershed (studies), and we expanded that in the early ‘90s to about 50 lakes. We picked those lakes based on the classification system that we developed in the original survey. We could look at a certain number of highly-sensitive lakes and a certain number of insensitive lakes and a certain number of brown water lakes and look at how they’re responding over time, not only in terms of the biology but also the chemistry. Part of that original work was to take computer models that were developed over time, modify them, improve them, and then apply them to different scenarios where you would lower inputs of acid rain and look at rates of recovery.
A: We’re in a better position than we were in the ‘80s. We didn’t know anything, we knew we were just scratching the surface. Now, we have a pretty good understanding of Adirondack lakes. I think we can be more judicious in our selection of lakes, and we can ask very focused questions and come up with a cost-effective number of lakes and the right lakes to maximize the amount of information. It’s expensive to go out there and collect the samples. Once you’ve got that data, particularly sensor data or genomic data, it’s a huge data analysis exercise.
The other part of it that is critically important, you might argue that we didn’t do as good a job as we could have, is integrating the physical data, the chemical data, the biological data, to provide a good understanding of the system, how the biological system is responding to chemical and physical changes.
A: We want to try to protect the lakes, we want the lakes to have good function and remain in a relatively pristine state for future generations, for recreation fisheries, for the local community. We want to understand how different types of lakes are responding to future pressures. We may learn a lot about the details from detailed science, but I think we have a pretty good idea of the management questions. What are the lakes that are going to be most highly impacted? What would those impacts be? To what extent is it going to affect the biological communities and people’s ability to collect certain fish and consume the fish and see certain wildlife? I think we can address those. The people who are providing the money are going to want us to address those basic questions.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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