The Smartest Lake on Earth

by Bill McKibben | October 2016

Everyone’s got a smartphone—no status points there.

But at least for the moment there’s only one truly smart body of water anywhere on Earth. If you live in Bolton Landing or Hague, if you canoe to Diamond Island or climb the Tongue Mountain Range, if you Jet Ski the Narrows or take the evening cruise on the Minne-Ha-Ha, you should know: Lake George is suddenly wired, stem to stern. It’s the Stephen Hawking of limpid pools, the Einstein of tarns. Its zooplankton and algae are monitored with a zeal that would worry Edward Snowden; its salt levels checked with a precision that puts a nursing-home dietitian to shame.

The Jefferson Project—named for the president who called Lake George “without comparison the most beautiful water I ever saw”—is “the most technologically sophisticated lake monitoring project in the world,” says Rick Relyea, a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) faculty member who heads the effort from the university’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute, a few hundred feet north of the Sagamore resort in Bolton Landing.

He’s got 45 team members hard at work—but just as importantly, he’s got a series of weather stations in the hills above the lake, and a flotilla of pontoon-borne “vertical profilers” constantly sampling the water column from north to south, and a submarine squad of Doppler radars planted on the lake bottom to measure the flows of water, of nutrients, of microscopic animals. The network—designed by Jefferson Project partner IBM—doesn’t just monitor; each of the pieces can talk to each other, so a weather station in the hills can sense when a sudden, violent rainstorm may be about to wash sediment downhill, signaling the pontoon boats to start taking samples every minute instead of every hour.

“So—February 17th, we had small flurries,” says Jeremy Farrell, an RPI postdoc who at the moment is piloting the boat taking us out to Calves Pen, some of the deepest water in the lake. “It was the fifth or sixth snow squall of the winter, and the highway department had salted through all of them. But after this squall there was an inch of rain, and within six hours our stream monitors were showing that the amount of chlorides coming into the lake had increased two orders of magnitude. Within 18 hours we could see it coming in along the bottom of the lake, right to this machine here.”

Salt is one of several reasons for the Jefferson Project. A 30-year study carried out by RPI’s Fresh Water Institute in conjunction with the environmental group Fund for Lake George showed that salinity levels, while still low relative to other developed lakes, were increasing. So were levels of chlorophyll, a sign that runoff was bringing more nutrients into the lake and beginning to degrade its signature clarity. Lake George has far fewer invasive species than Lake Champlain, to the north, or the Great Lakes; researchers would like to keep it that way, and understand what the few invaders—Asian clams, say, or mystery-banded snails—are doing to ecosystems.

That 30-year study was “really the script for the Jefferson Project,” says the Fund’s executive director Eric Siy. But now, with all the automated equipment replacing people in boats lowering jars into the water, they’ve been able to go from several thousand data points spread over decades to what IBM’s senior research engineer Mike Kelly says is 15 million in a year. Answering the questions won’t necessarily be simple, even with all those new numbers pouring in. Salt, for instance, seems pretty straightforward—it’s been rising at a fairly steady rate. But the Jefferson Project has been carrying out experiments in dozens of 300-gallon tanks on a field near the RPI campus, varying salt levels in lake water to check the effects; Relyea won’t release the findings yet, but hints they will show that it would take many years before the salt reached a level that would do serious damage. So: good news. Except that, as Siy points out, the data also shows much higher levels in the streams along the roads feeding into the lake.

If the array of hardware won’t answer every hard question overnight, it is producing a remarkable new understanding of the lake. Placid as it looks on the surface on a calm day, the various instruments make clear that there are currents and cross-currents sloshing back and forth across the lake, eddies and gyres forming. Its most basic geography is fairly simple: water comes in from 140 streams, along with springs and seeps, and all of it eventually empties out at the north, in Ticonderoga. But it takes seven years for the average water molecule to make the journey, and now scientists are getting a much better sense of that journey—one that Relyea says will be applicable to many other bodies of water in the future.

In the meantime, graphics experts at IBM are busy producing gorgeous underwater maps showing the hidden hills and cliffs of the lake. Faculty and students at RPI are taking the data and using it to build a remarkable video game that lets you dive like fish—or even a tiny water flea. Graduate students—working off a retrofitted pontoon boat—are coring mud sediments at the bottom of the lake to see what’s happened in the past (it’s easy, for instance, to figure out when farmers cleared the surrounding hills, because suddenly ragweed pollen appears in the mud).

Mike Kelly jumps off the boat and onto one of the vertical profilers, demonstrating the winch that lowers a sampler every few hours, stopping every meter down to the bottom. He’s more excited, though, by a small computer circuit board in a waterproof plastic case—the proprietary programming that lets this machine talk with the weather stations, or the bottom radars. And more than talk: change its sampling rate or depth as new information arises. This machine-to-machine communication—what programmers call “the Internet of things”—is what attracts IBM to the project, testing out ideas that will be useful in dozens of more-commercial settings.

“I suppose we could do much the same thing in a factory, monitoring the strain on gauges on different pieces of equipment,” says Kelly, as we look up at Shelving Rock Mountain looming to the east, and a bank of white clouds slowly drifting across the afternoon sky. “We could do it there, but it wouldn’t be quite as much fun.”

Bill McKibben is a best-selling author, an environmental activist and founder of, a global grassroots climate movement. He has contributed to this magazine since 1988.

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