To understand the Adirondacks’ changing climate, researchers study sediment from meters below lake bottoms
By Chloe Bennett
Adirondack lakes have many stories to tell. Some can be found deep below the lake bottom, captured in thousands of years of sediment.
Researchers from the State University of New York at Albany are uncovering that history by suctioning sediment cores. The long brown mud samples may not intrigue the average observer, but a closer examination shows clues to how the environment is changing.
Leading the research is Sky Hooler, a graduate student, alongside professor and researcher Aubrey Hillman, who started the project, at the University at Albany’s Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences. A deep connection to the Adirondacks and an eagerness to address climate change led Hooler to join the project.
“It feels very close to home to be working with it now, and it definitely feels very rewarding to get to go out and do something that I love personally and feel like I’m hopefully making a difference,” Hooler said.
Lake core sediments are time capsules of their surrounding environments. By comparing the lakes’ productivity and nutrient levels to those before European settlement times, Hooler and the research team can find markers of changes in the lakes. For some, the shift may be permanent.
Hooler said the researchers can see a tipping point that resulted in a transformed ecosystem that is “not repairable as long as there’s stress from warming.”
Sediments cored from water bodies are layered through time with organic material and water. Similar to tree rings, each slice shows a time period and a snapshot of the surrounding environment. In 2022, the research method was used by Texas A&M scientists to gain clues on how methane escapes from ocean floors and enters the atmosphere. In the Adirondacks, students at Paul Smith’s College have used lake sediment cores to find information about the lives of Indigenous people before colonialism.
“There’s no good analog for what we’re going to see for the future,” said Hillman.“But by looking at the past, we can get a sense of how things are likely to respond.”
Data from the project could be a model for how the lakes will function with warmer temperatures from climate change. That information will come from Heart Lake, Challis Pond, Little Hope, Rat Pond and Black Pond, in the counties of Essex and Franklin.
The UAlbany team suctioned the sediment using a UWITEC coring device, which plunges a long tube into the waters, filling it with the lake sample. The instrument sinks up to 3 meters into the sediment, Hooler said, uncovering up to 3,000 years of ecological history.
“The idea is that we could hopefully present to policymakers and watershed managers: ‘This is how things are likely to look in the next 50 years and the next 100 years,’” Hillman said.