A bright yellow platform the size of a jet ski bobbed on Lake George as IBM research engineer Mike Kelly climbed aboard. Unlike the other tourists at the popular vacation spot in upstate New York, Kelly wasn't there for a break; he was checking on sensors that transform the waterway into a "smart lake."
The sensor rig he'd boarded was monitoring pollution, including road salt. Thick cakes of salt dumped on upper New York roads during snowstorms inevitably wash into Lake George each spring with the snowmelt, encouraging the proliferation of invasive species and making the otherwise strikingly clear waters dark and murky.
Kelly popped open a panel to show me the pulley that sends sensors into the depths of the lake. A mechanism inside was set to drop the sensors deep into the lake at the top of each hour, and reel them back in. Soon after he opened the panel, a pulley system began whirring like the spool of a mechanized fishing rod. The wire holding the sensors slid through a one-foot-wide hole in the platform's metal grating, and I looked into the suede-blue water, wondering what types of life were getting scanned 200 feet below my soggy shoes.
Lake George isn't the only natural spot to get a technological upgrade. Forests are also being put under the microscope to see how they develop at Harvard Forest, a sensor-laden forest monitored by Harvard University. Oregon State University analyze songbirds' chirping, treating certain noises as a "canary in a coal mine" for larger ecological issues.
That type of technology is helpful for developed cities to better manage their natural resources, but it could be life-saving for developing regions where data on water quality is less reliable. Harry Kolar, a researcher at IBM, said the long-term vision is to help sell some of these sensor units to NGOs and researchers in developing nations so they can have the data to begin addressing those problems. It will only become a bigger issue as climate change reduces the world's available clean water.
"Managing resources such as water quality in general is becoming a bigger problem across the world and has been for a while," he said.
At Lake George, aquatic sensors are automatically dipped into the lake every hour to take measurements, including oxygen levels, pH, and salinity. They stay on the lake throughout most of the year (except when the lake freezes over in the winter) as part of the Jefferson Project at Lake George, a research collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM, and The FUND for Lake George.
Larry Eichler of RPI, a university in upstate New York, has been studying the lake for decades. He told me these sensors, the first of which was put on the lake two years ago*, collect as much data in a week as he collected in 30 years of taking data by hand. Three rigs and on-shore platforms have installed 265 sensors on the lake, including one platform with sensors researchers can talk to in real-time, rather than having to pre-program. And if they pick up something interesting, such as a spike in a pollutant, they're programmed to do additional scans automatically. Eventually, the researchers said the sensors will be able to send an email or text message to researchers, water plant operators, and city officials in the event of a major issue, such as a toxic algae bloom or a hazardous waste spill. All of that better informs experiments—and in theory could advise local legislation.
On another rainy day in upstate New York, RPI professor Rick Relyea led me to a field full of neon-blue plastic kiddie pools and black cattle troughs. Inside the 400 or so containers were water from the lake, plus nearly every species of plant and animal that live in the lake.
This is the end stage of the smart lake experiment, part of the Jefferson Project. It collects data, modeling software predicts problems, and the kiddie pools serve as tiny lakes for experimental confirmation. "Here we can tell you what the future will be," Relyea said.
The sensors are picking up more salt and more invasive snails? Throw that type of salt and those species into a pool with lake water and see what happens. (The calcium in one type of road salt, calcium chloride, helps invasive snails build shells easier, helping them take over.)
And if a city wants to try out a new type of road salt, they can test it here to make sure it isn't going to cause the water to go murky or the fish to die, avoiding lost tourism dollars, crashing housing prices and boatloads of lawsuits.
As for Lake George's future, data could protect its beauty and thriving ecosystem.
"It's not too far gone," Relyea said. "Changes can be made to turn it around if those changes are informed by science."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.
Correction: This article originally states the sensors had been put in the lake in March, but the first ones were installed two years ago.