Thomas Jefferson called Lake George in Upstate New York “without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw.” The painter Georgia O’Keefe lived part time at the lake during the 1920s and ’30s, drawing inspiration for some of her laconic, gauzy landscapes. The Whitneys summered there, the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers -- all the big industrialists. It’s still one of New York’s top vacation destinations, bringing in around $1 billion in tourism each year.
If climate change took vacations it would probably go there too. But climate change doesn’t take vacations. In fact, Mark Swinton says it’s kind of hanging out at Lake George all the time, and not in a regular-folk, kick-back-in-an-Adirondack-chair-and-read-a-good-book sorta way.
Swinton is a post-doctorate research associate with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the university’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute. He has seen a dead zone crop up in the lake that appears to be fueled by unsavory algae, runoff tainted with overly rich nutrients, and stagnant circulation caused by oddball weather. It's an unsettling sign that even the most pristine places, and the best-protected water supplies, could be in trouble, impacted by climate change in ways that we don’t even understand yet.
To get a better grasp on how land use and climate change are altering the lake, Rensselaer's Darrin Institute, the nonprofit Fund for Lake George, and computer giant IBM have been laying the groundwork for a new "smart lake" initiative that will load up Lake George with more high-tech monitoring gadgets and sensors than any other body of fresh water in the world. When completed, it will be the Hubble Telescope of limnology, the Human Genome Project for freshwater lakes on a warming planet. And it will let us peer deep into what’s going to happen with some of our favorite vacation spots/ swimming holes -- oh, and the water we drink -- in a climate that is warming faster than ever.