ESF Scientists use high-tech device to find why some of Lake Ontario is cleaner, other waters worse

May 18, 2013

Researchers are trying to find out why the water at many of the Lake Ontario beaches is not improving like the rest of the lake.  A high-tech device might shed some new light on a scientific and ecological mystery.

This device lurked in the waters of Lake Ontario to see if a temperature barrier affects water quality.
This device lurked in the waters of Lake Ontario to see if a temperature barrier affects water quality.
Credit Great Lakes Observing System

Scientists from the SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry College launched what they call Autonomous Underwater Vehicles that can be programmed to do research

"It looks very much like a torpedo," says SUNY ESF Chemistry Department Chair Doctor Greg Boyer.  "The front part of it you put different sensors.  We can for example measure temperature; we can measure conductivity.  We can measure the amount of algae in the water.” 

That’s the main interest of Boyer…who also directs the New York Great Lakes Research Consortium.  He’s looking at green and blue-green algae that comes up on beaches and how a temperature barrier that forms in lake might be a factor.

AUV can be programmed to take samples in several places in the lake.
AUV can be programmed to take samples in several places in the lake.
Credit Great Lakes Observing System

"We’re trying to figure out how important that is relative to the total amount of junk coming out of river.  If it only forms for a short time, then it's probably not really that important," adds Boyer.  " If it forms for a longer period of time, especially when rivers are sending a lot of material out into the lake, then it may be very important driver of what happens in near shore zone."

HOW TEMPERATURE AFFECTS WATER QUALITY

If that debris and sediment and organic material stay in the near-shore waters, it affects beaches and fishing and the water quality in general.  Boyer says this concern comes as the deeper waters of the lake are showing great improvement.

If you look at long term studies of lake Ontario, we've done all this fancy remediation, and EPA has done all these controls so we don’t put nutrients in off shore waters and getting better and better."  But Boyer notes, "Unfortunately the near-shore waters where people swim and recreate and use the beaches are not getting better in fact in some cases they're getting worse and worse."   

The findings could dictate how pollution programs and resources are being utilized.  An research agreement between the U-S and Canada focuses intensely on one great lake per year…which led to this project and the use of the A-U-V’s to hopefully improve water quality.