Researchers receive grant to study New England lakes

by Hye Young Kim | 10/16/17 2:15am

Researchers in various fields of science from the College, the University of New Hampshire and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies are joining forces in a three-year research project on the prevalence of blooms in bacteria of lakes in Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. Led by David Lutz, an environmental studies research associate and lecturer at the College, the team is working under a grant of $1.47 million from NASA.

Specifically, the team aims to assess all of the data that has been collected on New England lakes to find out what factors have led to the decline of water quality in some lakes and not others, Lutz said.

“Our general focus for this project is to look at lakes in our region and look at how water quality is changing and the incidence of cyanobacteria blooms, which obviously affect water quality,” Lutz said.

Cyanobacteria, or “blue-green algae”, sometimes blooms in massive, toxic clumps and rises to the surface of water. These blooms can be observed in both local locations like Lake Sunapee or more distant locations like Lake Eerie, Lutz said, but they occur under very different circumstances; lakes in the Midwest are surrounded by cities and farms that release waste and fertilizer into the water whereas New England lakes are less tainted by possible sources of nutrients that fuel cyanobacterial growth.

“The lakes we’re seeing the changes of water quality and these blooms in are not like the blooms that you would see in the Midwest,” Lutz said. “When you see Lake Sunapee, you don’t see that many farms around it – it’s very different.”

The research that Lutz’s team is doing is unique in that it is composed of interdisciplinary researchers who assess the lakes through multiple techniques. Michael Palace, a team member and an environmental science and earth sciences professor from the University of New Hampshire, said he approaches the research through remote sensing, satellite imagery analysis and unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.

“Satellite imagery is important for both complete coverage and repeatability – so collections may be a few times a season, and also going back in history,” he said.

The satellite imagery is used to view large cyanobacterial growths and determine water contamination by the lakes’ reflections, Palace said.

While satellites and remote sensing provide efficiency in covering a lake-rich area like New England, data collection needs to take place on ground level as well, according to Ken Johnson, sociology professor and senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire, who is on the research team.

“My overall goal is to be able to provide additional information that cannot be obtained from the remote sensing platforms,” Johnson said.

Johnson works with information from the U.S. Census about where populations reside on the perimeter of the lakes.

“We believe that in areas where there is population and housing, the effects on the likelihood of blooms may be different than where there isn’t population and housing,” Johnson said. “The census data, when it’s combined with what the remote sensing platforms can see, will give us a more comprehensive understanding of what’s going on along the lake shores and in close proximity to the lakes.”

Palace said that for the first year, he and his colleagues will focus on Lake Sunapee and will eventually expand into other lakes in New England.

“Our long-term goal is to create an algorithm that NASA could use to predict when these cyanobacteria outbreaks are going to occur,” Palace said.

Their hypothesis, according to Lutz, is that the shape, size and depth of the lake control the water quality and appearance of blooms, along with the land use surrounding the lake. The team, however, hopes to proceed beyond analyzing the factors of cyanobacterial pollution, Palace said.

Dartmouth undergraduates with an interest in the topic will have an opportunity to get involved with the research sometime this winter, according to Lutz.

“We’ve specifically set aside a funding stream for people who are interested in either satellite imagery, lake data collection, data science or UAVs and drones, to work in the lab,” he said.