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What’s wrong with gorgeous Lake George? Scientists wire it up to find out

lake george
Jorge Quinteros

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.

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An inner-city neighborhood rallies around a long-neglected park

Community members march in the park.
Community members march in the park.

Steve Coleman remembers arriving for his first day on the job as a community volunteer for the nonprofit Parks & People in Washington, D.C., more than 20 years ago. Standing on the street corner in front of a former after-hours club, looking toward a trash-strewn, overgrown, and heavily eroded streamside park not 20 yards away, he endured the taunts of a passerby. “White boy … white boy,” the man said as he sauntered down the sidewalk.

Coleman, who was born in India and raised in Pittsburgh, replied in his plainspoken tone, “I do have a name.”

Startled, the man tried to clarify the situation. He meant no offense: The term “whiteboy” was just local vernacular for a particular psychoactive substance on offer for willing customers. He was simply touting his wares.

Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.
Susie Cagle
Join Grist as we explore the wild landscapes of our cities.

Parks & People’s Riverside Center headquarters, it turns out, were located on the same intersection as one of the city’s most brazen illicit-drug supermarkets.

The next thing that needed to be cleared up was what Coleman was doing there. There were only three types of people who might reasonably be expected to show up at that spot, the man told him: Drug dealers, drug buyers -- “or was I a cop?”

Well, four types. “You must be a developer, then,” the man said finally, finding it impossible to believe anyone coming into that impoverished, far northeast corner of Washington, D.C., would give a rat’s behind about the neighborhood or the people in it, much less the long-neglected park down the street.

So, why was he here? Judging from his enthusiasm and from the evident progress in creating a newly hospitable place in what was once considered, even by local government officials, a “no go zone,” it doesn’t seem likely Coleman has ever stopped to ask himself that question. Now Parks & People’s executive director, Coleman has been fighting for the environment since the age of 12, when he wrote a stern letter to the U.S. Forest Service demanding cleaner woodlands. Today, he views his job of reconnecting the community with the stream as a key to improving life for the neighborhood’s mostly poor, African American residents.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Cape Wind wins billions in backing, launches offshore wind in the U.S.

offshore wind farm
Nuon

What do you do when local opposition to an offshore wind farm project dries up, when the NIMBY crowd runs out of steam, when the federal government gives the green light and extends every permit and courtesy the law will allow, when the technology is tested and proven, and there’s nothing left to do but build it? Well, then you go looking for money -- lots of it. After more than a decade of preparation, the Massachusetts wind energy company Cape Wind has done just that -- and the results are looking promising.

A $2 billion agreement with Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ penned last week catapults Cape Wind to a commanding lead in the race to be the first offshore wind project in the U.S. When complete, 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound will generate 468 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 100,000 to 200,000 households in the Cape Cod region, depending on the season. If the company can get construction started this year, Cape Wind’s clean power could begin turning on lights from Buzzards Bay to Provincetown by 2015.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Fiddling on the roof: Can $10 million in prize money spark a solar revolution?

solar panels
Shutterstock

Want to know the real reason that rooftop solar panels haven’t spread across the United States yet? Slap a few panels on your roof some night and wait for the local code enforcer to notice them. Then count the citations as they roll in.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, we’ve got the technology to power our lights with solar, but the red tape gets in the way. Regulatory hoops are holding up solar progress, says the agency (which is somewhat famous for its regulatory hoops), and making rooftop solar twice as expensive as it should be.

Now, to get us over the hump on solar power, DOE is offering a total of $10 million in prize money to the first teams of Americans that can figure out how to cut through the red tape and make solar installation cheaper on a sustainable basis. It might be the first time the government has offered such a fabulous reward for finding a way to get around the government.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Hot pursuit: Amateur naturalists help track the shifting seasons

Photo by A. Miller-Rushing.

Susan Peters, who moved from the East Coast to Tucson, Ariz., a couple of years ago, calls her adopted town an “oasis” -- never mind that it only gets 12.6 inches of rain each year on average. “I have a very green, beautiful yard with desert-adapted plants, not the East Coast kind of thing,” she says.

She especially likes her 35-year-old saguaro cactus -- the kind “you always see in Westerns,” she says. But if her cactus is ever going to land a starring role in the movies, it’s going to need to grow some arms, and Peters says that could take another 40 years. It’s also going to require water -- lots of it, and somehow it doesn’t look as if that’s in the cards. In recent decades, the Tucson area has suffered the grip of a combination of sustained drought and high temperatures possibly unrivaled since medieval times.

Read more: Animals, Climate Change

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River rising: Water helps revive a washed-up industrial town

Almost as good as a parking lot: An artist's rendering of the completed river restoration in downtown Yonkers. (Image by City of Yonkers.)

For nearly 100 years, New York’s fourth largest city sat on top of a hidden river. The Saw Mill, or Nepperhan ("rapid little water," its original Native American name), rose and fell with the seasons beneath a crowded parking lot in downtown Yonkers. Tiny fish struggled to carry on the cycles of life in its darkened waters, even as a bustling city above wrestled its way through a whipsaw economy.

The river ran through the center of town, and had played a central role in its history -- as early as the 1600s, it inspired the mills and industries that powered the town’s expansion. But by the early 2000s, the Saw Mill had not been seen in downtown Yonkers in living memory. Then a few imaginative residents had the idea that if the city could bring new life to the river, the river could help sustain the city.

Read more: Cities, Urbanism

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Old dumps, new tricks: Turning landfills into nature preserves

Sanitation workers handle drums of DDT at the Brookfield landfill in 1971. (Photo by Staten Island Advance.)

It’s a clear sunny Saturday afternoon in 1972 in the idyllic suburban neighborhood of Great Kills, on New York City’s Staten Island. You’re just pulling the AMC Ambassador station wagon out of the Brookfield landfill after dropping off a couple of trash bags full of lawn clippings. You’ll stop off next door at the bakery for some cupcakes for the kids and be back in the carport in two and a half minutes, just in time to catch the Mets game over the radio out by the grill. It’ll be a good day as long as the wind keeps blowing the right direction.

Such was life near Brookfield, a landfill that was an eyesore and bane of the community for decades. But after 40 years with this unwelcome neighbor, Great Kills residents learned at a December meeting that they are finally about to have their say over what goes into the 132-acre former dump at the end of the block. An evolving spirit of partnership has begun transforming the site into a major New York City park, perhaps unique in the nation.

John McLaughlin, the ecologist managing the restoration for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, says that when completed, it will be one of the largest chunks of natural landscape in the city, and the first landfill in the United States to be converted into an “ecologically functional wetland park.”

Read more: Cities, Pollution