Skaneateles Lake gets help in fighting toxic algae — from a robot Glenn Coin
Skaneateles, N.Y. — A robotic buoy bristling with scientific instruments has joined the fight against toxic algae in Skaneateles Lake.
Scientists from IBM and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute installed the buoy, called a vertical profiler, on July 30. The algae quickly cooperated: A bloom that closed beaches and infiltrated water intake pipes started Aug. 4.
That wasn’t necessarily what researchers wanted, said Harry Kolar, an IBM researcher on the project.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of baseline data to work with,” he said.
The $170,000 profiler, built at RPI, is collecting plenty of data. It records everything from air and water temperature to water clarity to pigments produced by toxic algae, and it does it every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day. It’s called a vertical profiler because it measures all the way through the water column, from surface to bottom. It sits above about 60 feet of water just off the Skaneateles Country Club dock.
Scientists hope that by collecting enough data, and running it through complex modeling programs, they can predict when toxic algae blooms will appear.
“That’s the Holy Grail science and the community want to know: when and where is the next one,” said Rick Relyea, an RPI biology professor.
It’s an important question for Skaneateles Lake, the unfiltered drinking water source for about 200,000 residents of Central New York, including the city of Syracuse. Last year, a major algae bloom infiltrated the lake’s two intake pipes, and the city scrambled to add more chlorine to keep the algae toxins from getting into drinking water.
This year, Syracuse is conducting more tests. The brief, early August algae bloom showed low levels of the algae toxins, called microcystins, in the intake pipes for a couple of days. More recent tests have shown no microcystins, liver toxins that can sicken humans and kill dogs. (While algae is the common term, the blooms are actually a kind of bacteria known as cyanobacteria.)
The Skaneateles Lake pilot project is a spinoff from the much larger Jefferson Project on Lake George. That project, in its fifth year, deploys 51 sensor platforms with more than 500 individual sensors in the Lake George watershed. Eric Siy, director of The Fund for Lake George, one of the partners in the Jefferson Project, calls Lake George “the world’s smartest lake.”
Siy said the Lake George data has been used to study road salt infiltration, invasive species, and nutrients, including those that can fuel algae blooms.
Lake George has never had a reported harmful algae bloom – but then, Skaneateles Lake hadn’t either before last year.
“It’s clear it can happen anywhere,” said Relyea, who directs the Jefferson Project.
Relyea calls Skaneateles Lake and Lake George “sister lakes.” Both are long, narrow, deep, lakes with low levels of the nutrients that spur algae blooms, he said. The two are also among 12 selected as high priority water bodies in New York state’s $65 million toxic algae control program.
Skaneateles Lake is half as long as, and 128 feet deeper than, Lake George, but Skaneateles will be simpler lake to study and model, Relyea said. Lake George’s surface area is larger than Skaneateles’s, and it has a more varied lake bottom and numerous islands in the middle that alter wind and currents.
Skaneateles Lake, by contrast, “is like a long, skinny bathtub in a valley,” he said.
The Skaneateles Lake Association supports the new data collection program, said Executive Director Rachael DeWitt.
“We have a lot we can learn from them,” said DeWitt, who started Aug. 1, just in time for this year’s algae bloom. “The more data we obtain, the better.”