Researchers gear up for comprehensive monitoring of hundreds of lakes
By Zachary Matson
Scientists planning a far-reaching survey of climate change want to take the temperature of Adirondack lakes — continuously and at different depths.
By deploying a network of data loggers throughout the water column, researchers can bank a continuous stream of data on water temperature and dissolved oxygen levels across all seasons. The measures are key to the survival of trout and other cold-water species and are central to the growing effects of climate change on Adirondack waters.
With equipment costs projected at around $14,000 per lake, the intensive data collection is planned for around 50 of 300 lakes expected to be surveyed in the field during the proposed lake study. But the critical data can help scientists finetune models to predict patterns on all Adirondack lakes and better understand the existential squeeze facing cold-water species in search of optimal water temperature and oxygenation.
Researchers also hope to document historic algal blooms in lake bottom sediments, measure lake biodiversity with water in a small tube, compare current food web energy transfers to 40-year-old samples sitting in state archives, and explore a litany of discreet scientific questions, according to a recent planning document.
The plan for the sprawling Survey of Climate Change and Adirondack Lake Ecosystems (known as SCALE) comes as scientists and Adirondack advocates push state lawmakers to expand funding to the project in the new state budget due April 1. The survey would build on decades of research centered on acid rain, while shifting the focus to water temperature and oxygen levels, carbon cycling, biodiversity and threats from invasive species, harmful algal blooms, latent mercury contamination and other conditions influenced by climate change.
The planning document provides a detailed breakdown of four guiding questions:
- How has the warming climate and increasing severe storms affected baseline conditions of water temperature, oxygen, and nutrients in Adirondack lakes?
- How is climate change affecting the biota of Adirondack lakes?
- How is climate change affecting carbon cycling, including the role of lake sediments as carbon sinks?
- Are harmful algal blooms becoming more prevalent under climate change?
It also sketches out an organizational structure that centers on a consortium of research institutions, organizations and government agencies led by water scientists and divided into field and science teams. The plan includes a timeline that suggests shifting from piloting strategies this year to the first of three consecutive field seasons in 2024. It includes another two years at least to analyze and publish findings, including models that project climate impacts across the park’s thousands of lakes. The plan includes a total budget estimate of $13 million across six years.
After allocating $500,000 in survey startup costs last year, lawmakers are mulling another $4 million this year that would enable researchers to shift from planning to implementing the study of Adirondack lakes.
Meanwhile, research labs at Cornell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, CUNY Graduate Center and Syracuse are mobilizing to identify lakes and crunch historic data, develop sampling protocols and compile a comprehensive review of satellite data across every inch of the park.
WATCH: Curt Stager, a climate scientist at Paul Smith’s College and Brendan Wiltse, water quality director at the Adirondack Watershed Institute, discuss the effects of climate change on the Adirondacks.
Researchers are leveraging recent advances in technology and scientific methods to streamline field work compared to an expansive 1980s survey, the last Adirondack lake study of its kind, while growing the amount of information they plan to collect. The study would examine a wider set of questions, including how carbon cycles through lakes, how energy moves through food webs and how pervasive harmful algal blooms are in remote lakes.
The scientific groundwork has been spread among institutions as researchers plan a “pilot” sampling season this spring and summer with field staff at the Ausable River Association. The pilot will help scientists refine their approach ahead of a full field season next year. The plan suggests field crews visit around 100 lakes per year over three years of four-month field seasons.
A remote sensing program at the City University of New York Graduate Center is focused on using satellite data to examine trends in a litany of measures, such as surface water temperature, ice cover, lake browning, and even occurrences of algal blooms. The remote data helps fill gaps left by the limitations of field work.
From computers in New York City, the researchers are gathering more data that bolsters concerns that Adirondack lakes are warming especially fast during spring and early fall, threatening ice coverage across the region. They have been focusing on around 30 closely-monitored lakes but plan to expand their study parkwide in the course of the lake survey.
The group is led by Marzi Azarderakhsh, an environmental sciences professor also researching urban heat islands in New York City, and is working this year to publish an article on trends in the Adirondacks.
“We see a worrying warming trend (above 1 degree Celsius per decade, or roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade) from all lakes for the months of May and September from 2000-2022,” the CUNY researchers said in a statement summarizing their work so far. “This is consistent with findings from field studies indicating that the summer season is lengthening on both sides.”
The satellite data has improved dramatically in recent decades and can fill in months and years of data missed between field studies. It enables researchers to examine changes in land use, surface water temperature, ice coverage, algal formation and more.
“Because it’s continuous we can link the new and old surveys with remote sensing,” Azarderakhsh said.
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How many lakes?
It also means researchers can study all Adirondack waters, not just the 300 or so that would make a final list of lakes examined in the field. It works in tandem with detailed analysis of field samples to project conditions across many unvisited sites. The CUNY team is developing models to filter the satellite data for all lakes across the park. How much has your favorite lake warmed over the decades? The answers could be part of a full survey.
“We can do any of the other lakes,” Azarderakhsh said.
Cornell researchers are leading development of sampling methods to use environmental DNA technology to survey lake biodiversity. The approach estimates species present in a lake by tallying the genetic indicators found in a water sample. But the legwork to ensure accurate eDNA analysis requires the creation of a comprehensive reference library that includes genomic information for all species that could potentially be found in a particular lake. While that information might be readily available for Adirondack fish species, it’s harder to come by for the small but prevalent macroinvertebrates and other species types that play a key role in lake ecosystems. The pilot sampling will focus on identifying fish and mussel species, but researchers hope to expand the species categories examined in the final survey.
“You can basically have the whole view of the community,” said Jose Andres, a Cornell scientist leading the eDNA work. “The idea I believe is to cast a really broad net within the capability of what we can do, so that we can characterize the entire community, not just the fish level.”
At RPI, scientists are analyzing past Adirondack lake monitoring projects, including the 1980s survey, and developing a set of lakes to survey that would be representative of the whole park and provide researchers with the most continuous dataset possible.
It’s difficult to find a definitive count of the total number of lakes that populate the Adirondacks, but the researchers making plans for the SCALE survey created a new estimate: 12,633 lakes, ponds and reservoirs in total.
The vast majority of the waterbodies are small: two-thirds are less than 1 hectare (a square with 100-meter-long sides) in size. Just over 4,000 are larger than a hectare. As part of organizing a 2021 work session on the survey, graduate student Max Glines used the newest iteration of the National Hydrography Dataset High Resolution, which offers a detailed view of how water flows across the landscape, to categorize Adirondack waterbodies by size. The count offers a glimpse of the scale of the Adirondack Park’s water resources and the new understanding of those resources beginning to develop during the survey’s planning.
“Smaller lakes we know are disproportionately numerous across the landscape, but people don’t really study them and that’s where a lot of the organisms live,” said Kevin Rose, an RPI scientist helping organize the SCALE survey. “I think people are continually surprised by the sheer number of lakes, especially small ones.”
Survey researchers plan to differ sampling intensity for different measurements. For example: some remote sensing observations will apply to all Adirondack lakes; standard chemistry and eDNA measurements can be collected at the 300 surveyed lakes; fish capture and tissue studies could be conducted on roughly 50 lakes; continuous data on temperature and oxygen can be logged at around two dozen sites. Sediment cores dating back 150 years or more on around two dozen lakes could be analyzed for historic HABs formation, including the presence of some toxins.
The final project design will be influenced by how much funding the project receives, and final scientific analysis will likely take at least two years after field sampling concludes. While initial findings might point in the direction of future conclusions, researchers cautioned that they are still refining the types of sampling strategies and tools that will prove fruitful.
“It’s not drawing conclusions, but proof of concept a particular tool can work and shows promise to be informative,” said Peter McIntyre, a Cornell scientist helping organize the lake study.
The press is on in Albany to get the SCALE project funded in the state budget due April 1. While Gov. Kathy Hochul did not include SCALE funding in her proposal, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, the Manhattan Democrat chairing the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, is seeking $4 million to implement the emerging lake survey plan.
“In the midst of the climate crisis, I think it is vital for us to be doing research,” Glick said in a recent interview. “Everything is referred to as ‘evidence based,’ well, this is the evidence.”
Glick and advocates pushing for the survey argue it is crucial to establish a baseline to judge policy changes that come out of the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which calls for an aggressive effort to decarbonize the state’s economy.
“As we are trying to address climate change, we have to know what our baseline is and whether or not the steps we are taking are showing discernible improvement,” Glick said.