June 27, 2013, was a perfect Lake George morning -absolutely clear, with a southerly breeze animating the waters of Bolton Bay – and therefore the perfect day to witness something that could happen only on Lake George. Which we did.
Speaking at The Fund for Lake George’s annual meeting at the Sagamore, the president of RPI, the chairman of The Fund for Lake George and the head of IBM’s research teams announced the launch of the Jefferson Project.
“Using a combination of advanced data analytics, computing and data visualization techniques, new scientific and experimental methods, three-dimensional computer modeling and simulation, as well as historical data, RPI, The Fund for Lake George and IBM will create a global model for sustained ecosystem understanding and protection,” said Dr. John E. Kelly of IBM.
Over the past few months, the Jefferson Project’s founders have commemorated its tenth anniversary by recounting its achievements and predicting, cautiously, its future.
“We have done some amazing work,” Dr. Kelly said on October 24 at Warren County EDC’s annual luncheon, where he was one of two featured speakers. “We built the most advanced sensing infrastructure and computer modeling systems of any place on the planet. Using that unique capability, we moved from science to solutions. We’ve had an impact on the lake and I can say with confidence that we will have further impact.”
In addition to Kelly’s talk at the EDC luncheon, which was held at Fort William Henry’s Carriage House, the Jefferson Project published a series of weekly essays in the Lake George Mirror explaining how it not only had made Lake George “the world’s smartest lake,” but “the world’s best protected lake.”
An anniversary report, documenting what has been learned and presenting a guide to keeping Lake George and all freshwater lakes as pristine as possible, was also issued. The report is now available through the Lake George Association (with which The Fund for Lake George was merged in 2021.)
And on November 28, Dr. Kevin Rose, an aquatic ecologist who teaches at RPI and who now serves as the director of the Darrin Freshwater Institute and the Jefferson Project, spoke about “Current Scientific Initiatives on Lake George” to the Lake George Park Commission.
“The Jefferson Project represents the culmination of many different pieces,” said Rose. “They come together in our goal of tackling the environmental challenges facing Lake George.”
Among the topics discussed by Rose and Kelly in their talks and addressed in the Jefferson Project’s tenth anniversary publications: Harmful Algal Blooms.
What causes Harmful Algal Blooms, why they occur with increasing frequency and why some produce toxins and others don’t: no scientist, no research institution, has come as close to answering these questions as has the Jefferson Project.
When Harmful Algal Blooms were found in Lake George in November, 2020 – the first reported sighting of Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake George in decades and the first officially confirmed outbreak in history – the Jefferson Project responded immediately, deploying the most advanced vertical profilers then available to collect data at sites where the blooms had been observed.
The blooms have appeared consistently since then, said Rose.
As John Kelly noted, the economic costs of Harmful Algal Bloom (HABs) to New York are said to be of a magnitude of $6 billion every year. And yet the state’s body of knowledge of HABs was rudimentary at best, until, that is, the Jefferson Project began to publicize its findings. “Driving HABs in every lake we’ve studied in detail are seven or eight mechanisms operating in just the right combination. Weather, wind, runoff, water circulation, sediments in the lake bed all play a role,” said Kelly. “What causes HABs? I think we’ve answered that question. Why do some turn toxic and others don’t? I think next year I might be able to answer that question as well.”
As the Jefferson Project scientists’ knowledge of the complex conditions that tend to be conducive to Harmful Algal Blooms grows, its technical ability to forecast the likelihood of a HAB grows proportionately.
“The science is not yet perfect,” said Rose. “But this winter, we will pull in more data and refine our models to better understand the specific conditions that indicate when and where they will appear.”
According to the Jefferson Project, one of its computer models, the so-called “Scenario Engine,” enables scientists and policy makers to anticipate impacts to ecosystems and to develop preventative measures to thwart even severe threats to water quality.
A Lake George where road salt and the nutrients from septic tanks, fertilizers and stormwater runoff are washed at current levels into tributaries and through the lake itself is one scenario being modeled.
“We have to manage this watershed. Storms of the severity we’ve experienced in recent years, and which will persist because of climate change, will drive immense amounts of water and nutrients into this lake,” said Kelly.
“Roughly 75% of all phosphorus comes through 10% of the most extreme precipitation events in any given year,” said Kevin Rose. “Managing phosphorus is the most cost-effective way of reducing algal blooms.”
One absolutely mandatory step: “a low nutrient diet,” meaning management practices that prevent stormwater and other sources of phosphorus from entering the lake.
“It’s been an amazing decade of work – work that is beyond anything being done any place else in the world,” Kelly said at the October 24 EDC luncheon. “It is work that has given us insights into what to do and insights into what not to do.”