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Jefferson Project: Unravelling the Mysteries of Harmful Algal Blooms

Jefferson Project: Unravelling the Mysteries of Harmful Algal Blooms May 31, 2023
A woman taking a sample of water for analysis.
Phosphorus from both developed and undeveloped areas is among factors contributing to the development of Harmful Algal Blooms.

What causes Harmful Algal Blooms, why they occur with increasing frequency and why some produce toxins and others don’t: these are the questions driving the Jefferson Project this year.

“A couple of questions have yet to be addressed, but compared to the state of our knowledge when the Jefferson Project began studying Harmful Algal Blooms in 2018, we have advanced light years,” said Dr. John E. Kelly III, the member of the Lake George Association’s Board of Directors who co-founded the Jefferson Project as head of IBM’s research.

Harmful Algal Blooms “are nature’s pandemic, and New York State is ground zero; the number of lakes in New York State with Harmful Algal Blooms has jumped exponentially within the last ten years.  It’s hard to find a water body that has not been impacted by them,” said Kelly.

Kelly estimates the economic costs of Harmful Algal Bloom (HABs) to New York to be of a magnitude of $6 billion every year. And yet the state’s body of knowledge of HABs is rudimentary at best.

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.

“Our team of experts will be on the lake and in our labs until we understand this,” Kelly promised at the time. It’s a promise he appears to have kept.

Causes of HABs – Proximate and Final

According to Kelly, there is no single cause of HABs. There are, however, several, often necessary but not sufficient conditions to produce them, on Lake George and other freshwater bodies, such as Skaneateles and Chautauqua, which Jefferson Project researchers have also studied.

“And these several pre-conditions are all interacting,” said Kelly.

“Lake George is a system of systems,” added Dr. Kevin Rose, a freshwater ecologist who teaches at RPI and who serves as the director of the Darrin Freshwater Institute and the Jefferson Project.

Given the multiple actors driving the creation of an HAB, it is not surprising that a multi-disciplinary team of scientists and engineers with expertise across a range of fields – from metagenomics, physics and chemistry to data analytics and computer modeling, such as those assembled by the Jefferson Project – would be required to decipher its origins.

“There’s nothing like the Jefferson Project anywhere but here on Lake George; there is nothing like it anywhere in the world,” said Kelly.

Established in 2013 by IBM, RPI and The Fund for Lake George (now merged with the Lake George Association), the Jefferson Project was launched with the goal of making Lake George “the world’s smartest lake.”

“We certainly did that,” said Kelly.

The Problem with Phosphorus

The Harmful Algal Blooms found in Lake George are a blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, for the most part, of the genus Dolichospermum fuscum.

Dolichospermum fuscum is a commonly found in low-nutrient, oligotrophic North American lakes, Lake George included,” said Dr. Alison Hrycik of RPI.

“It can tolerate much colder waters than a lot of cyanobacteria can. So it can survive reasonably well in Lake George,” she said

If cyanobacteria is to grow, multiply and surface when certain conditions are present – – air and lake temperatures, amount of sunlight, the relative stillness of the waters, among them – it still requires phosphorus, whether it comes from a wild stream’s watershed or an over-developed shoreline.

“We have to go after the phosphorus; there’s a proper ratio between nitrogen and phosphorus, which has been destabilized,” said Kevin Rose.

“Much of Lake George’s problem with HABs is driven by external nutrient loading,” said Mike Kelly, a Senior Research Engineer with the Jefferson Project, who noted that HABS have, in the past, emerged in the days after heavy rains have flushed nutrients into the lake.

He said the conditions that were present when Harmful Algal Blooms were observed in November, 2020 – calm, windless days among them – were absent in July, 2021, when Harmful Algal Blooms appeared in three near-shore areas near Lake George Village after the region saw more than eight inches of rain and flash floods, during the third wettest July on record.

With more intense storms washing more nutrients, more frequently, into the lake, largely as a result of climate change, outbreaks of HABs will become annual and perhaps bi-annual events, Mike Kelly said.

What Makes Some Blue-Green Algae Toxic?

According to scientists (but not New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which labels cyanobacteria Harmful Algal Blooms indiscriminately, often on the basis of nothing more than a photograph), Dolichospermum fuscum becomes a Harmful Algal Bloom only when it produces toxins.

None of the blooms found on Lake George have contained detectable levels of toxins; nevertheless, the Jefferson Project’s researchers are anxious to identify the genetic activity that triggers cyanobacteria to produce toxins.

That is the subject of research being conducted now by Dr. John Dordick, a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at RPI, which John Kelly expects will answer several important questions.

Ongoing Research

As the Jefferson Project’ scientists’ knowledge of the complex conditions that tend to be conducive to Harmful Algal Blooms grows, its technical ability to predict the likelihood of a HAB grows proportionately.

“We’ll not only predict when it might occur, but where,” said Dr. Harry Kolar, an IBM Fellow.

“The Jefferson Project is a tremendous contribution not only to the protection of Lake George, but to lakes around the world, where we’re sending our technology and research teams. And with more samples for cross-comparisons, we’ll be better able to assess not merely the proximate, but the ultimate causes of Harmful Algal Blooms,” said Kevin Rose.

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