By BRANDON LOOMIS
You don’t have to tell the guys at Crown Point that Adirondack lakes are changing.
It’s apparent in the lack of ice-fishing shanties out on Lake Champlain, where once they formed seasonal villages filled with people angling for comfort. Now those shacks are gone—partly because invasive predators have pushed the crowd-pleasing smelt deeper, and partly because the ice is less dependable for those who still chase perch there. Now a few of them drag sleds and sit on buckets when conditions are right.
“We used to drive to Westport up the lake to fish,” longtime bait shop owner Norm St. Pierre said.
Drive trucks on ice from the Crown Point peninsula, that is—across Bulwagga Bay and more than 10 miles up the New York lakeshore.
That, like the perch parties, is in the past. “It doesn’t get as thick as it used to,” St. Pierre said. “Some years it doesn’t even freeze north of Port Henry,” just across the bay.
Anglers huddling in his shop one day in March agreed that they no longer trust the ice with their vehicles, though some of them once had, 30 years ago. Late-winter was good for lake ice this year—one angler had drilled through 18 inches off the peninsula that day. But last year, and most others, it might have been 8 inches.
This winter, when the National Weather Service reported that Champlain finally froze all the way across to Vermont on March 8, it was like hearing that a steamboat had crossed the lake: typical in the 19th century, improbable in the 21st. The lake ice officially “closed” in almost every year of the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, but has done so only 11 times since 1990.
Something’s up. Temperatures, yes, but scientists and conservationists want to know exactly how warming is altering Adirondack aquatics: water chemistry and clarity, oxygenation, and other factors critical to people and native species.
“There’s a whole different ecology developing before our eyes,” Paul Smith’s College lake ecologist Curt Stager said. He wants the state and other organizations to start tracking the changes so future Adirondackers can make informed decisions on managing resources.
The problem is that although acid rain in the late-20th century made the Adirondack lakes among the most studied, the scientists weren’t watching for other changes in the water. Now, it’s clear how clean-air rules over the decades have helped reduce acidity, but not so clear how a warming climate has changed the lakes.
Adirondack lakes still need a baseline from which to measure change.
That’s what Stager has for one lake—Lower St. Regis, near his college—because he has been “obsessive” about tracking things like the dates of ice-up and ice-out over three decades. The ice now forms a few days later on average, and breaks up two weeks earlier—in mid-April instead of late-April.
Scientists measuring changes to lakes across the park since the 1980s have focused on pH levels and species’ response to them, he said. But this warming has consequences not widely studied—a stratification of lake layers, for one, like what happens in valley air during a winter temperature inversion. A layer of warm water at the top blocks the normal churn of lake water, robbing oxygen from the depths and forcing coldwater fish to rise out of their comfort zone.
Oxygen depletion can also start a spiral of toxicity. When iron in the lakebed fails to oxidize into a rusty crust, leaves, dead fish and other muck trapped in the sediment start to feed algal blooms, which in turn accelerate in warming waters. Heavier rains may also contribute to runoff that feeds nutrients to the lake, renewing the cycle.
“These are environmental changes that are ganging up on the lakes,” Stager said. They’re creating a “novel ecosystem,” but, “you can’t tell what’s changing if you haven’t been measuring.”
Stager has the Adirondack Council’s attention. The conservation group is lobbying for state funding that would build a climate monitoring system for Adirondack lakes similar to what already exists for acid deposition.
“Ten years from now, what are we going to wish we had measured right now?” Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said.
The warming climate amplifies other threats including contamination from road salt and invasive species, he said. The Council is lobbying for $6 million in state funding that would create a three-year “snapshot” study of select Adirondack lakes to set a climate baseline for future comparison. The group is not seeking the money for itself, but for a scientific effort that other organizations, agencies and colleges have begun to envision.
Knowing how lakes are changing is important to the park’s economy and public health, and not just the ecology, Janeway said.
The push comes at a time when federal funding for programs like acid-rain monitoring has become tighter, and the Trump administration has proposed a rollback. People who care about the Adirondacks need this kind of data to make legal or political cases for environmental protection, Council spokesman John Sheehan said.
It played out in Congress and the courts when Adirondack defenders pushed for cleanup of acid-generating smokestacks, and it could again in efforts to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions.
“Really the only defense we have is proof that we are being harmed, and that the park is being harmed,” Sheehan said. “It helps us make the case to the rest of the country.”
In Lake Champlain, the biggest of all Adirondack waters, algal blooms are intensifying, especially in shallow bays, said Matthew Vaughan, technical coordinator for the Lake Champlain Basin Program. Trends in water temperature stratification—the phenomenon that impedes oxygenation—are not clear, though the effects when stratification happens are clear.
“That can lead to more cyanobateria,” Vaughan said, “and be tough on our fish.”
His congressionally designated interstate program can’t do much about water temperatures. So it is increasingly focused on reducing phosphorous that flows into the lake, from upstream farms, septic systems and inadequate stormwater retention projects. The program works with the Lake Champlain Committee’s volunteer network to increase awareness and award grants.
“It’s all about the nutrients that are available,” Vaughan said.
The same fears are rising to the south, on Lake George. E. coli contamination at times has closed the tourist destination at Million Dollar Beach, but isn’t the reputation killer that a dangerous cyanobacteria bloom could become as warming waters interact with inadequately treated sewage, Fund for Lake George Executive Director Eric Siy said.
“As the winter season grows shorter and the growing season grows longer,” Siy said, “it changes all the dynamics that have existed for many generations.”
On the mid-March ice near Lake Champlain’s Crown Point bridge, fisherman Rusty Berube felt emboldened by news that the lake had frozen all the way across. He enjoyed pulling his sled farther offshore than usual, and sat on his bucket a couple hundred yards from shore.
“You can’t usually go out this far,” the retired trucker said after pulling a yellow perch through a hole in the ice. But it was the first time in several years of fishing there that he had seen ice close the channel, and he wasn’t about to test the thickness out in the middle.
“It might be a little thin,” he warned.