An Invisible Threat
by Mary Thill
A new film by conservationist and pilot Ed McNeil, of Lake Placid, tells a stunningly visual story of changes that are too small for most of us to see.
McNeil and Charlie Canham, a forest ecologist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, in Millbrook, NY, have collected water samples from 520 Adirondack lakes and ponds since 2006. The preliminary findings are now summarized in “A New View of Adirondack Lakes,” a 21-minute online documentary.
The film is worth watching if only to learn surprising new things about a familiar landscape. For example, Canham and other Cary Institute scientists discover that what happens to forests at the top of a watershed a mile away from a lake can affect its chemistry as much as changes near the shoreline.
But it’s also worth seeing McNeil’s crisp and soaring footage of the Adirondacks, and watching his astonishing float plane dip in and out of some tiny ponds. McNeil built the open-cockpit AirCam twin expressly for this project. It bobs light as a dragonfly and lifts off the water in about four seconds. Without this aircraft, such wide sampling would not have been possible.
The film’s most important message, though, is that despite the Clean Air Act, nitric acid from fossil-fuel-burning power plants in the Midwest continues to rain largely unabated on the Adirondacks. While nitrogen concentrations vary dramatically from lake to lake, Canham finds that Adirondack forests absorb about 85 percent of the pollutant. The remaining 15 percent leaks into our waterways.
“One big question is: How long can we count on our forests to filter out most of the pollutants that fall on them before they reach the lakes?” Canham says. “There’s already evidence . . . that the filters are becoming saturated and may begin leaking a much higher percentage of the nitrogen that falls on them.
“We don’t know how long we have before this becomes widespread in the park, but that makes the need for additional reduction in air pollution even more urgent.”