The Eco Air Force
Puddle jumping for clean lakes
by Michael Virtanen
FROM THE SKY in high summer, many Adirondack lakes look like patches of blue, the occasional few are green, but most are brown among rolling green forests and mountains.
The landscape, says Charles Canham, who spent half of last summer flying over the Adirondack Park and dropping onto its lakes and ponds to collect water samples, is unbelievably beautiful. “It’s just vast unbroken forests with lakes and rivers and wetlands embedded in it,” he says. “You really get a sense of what the park is all about from a thousand feet up. . . . You don’t see roads. You don’t see camps. You don’t worry about the colors on the map. You realize it’s all sort of seamless.”
And yet, he and pilot Ed McNeil wouldn’t be barnstorming over the six-million-acre park in the open cockpit of a small plane if they weren’t worried about a new threat to this place.
“The dominant state, the most common state, for Adirondack lakes is to be . . . classically brown water but with low algal biomass,” says Canham, a forest ecologist with the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, in Millbrook, New York. “That brown is actually a product of either iron in the lake or dissolved organic carbon, which is the basis of the food web.”
So the predominance of brown is normal, healthy and associated with the park’s abundant wetlands. However, analysis of the 212 water bodies Canham and McNeil sampled in 2006 suggests that nitrogen is starting to clog some of the natural filters of the region’s forests and wetlands, tilting those lakes toward the green end of the spectrum.
It has been well documented that Adirondack lakes have high levels of acid and mercury, carried here from smokestacks in the Midwest. Nitrogen oxide, which is also pumped out by smokestacks and tailpipes, is a component of acid rain.
Canham says there are indications that some of the native microbes and plants that consume nitrogen as well as the soils that store the element are becoming overwhelmed. From the 2006 samples, Canham and Millbrook colleague Mike Pace have expanded their database and hope to get a clearer picture.
Pace, a lake ecologist, says some nitrogen from air pollution probably goes straight into the water and some likely accumulates in the soil. Nitrogen is also released into lakes naturally as organic material breaks down in the forest watershed. He and Canham are trying to differentiate sources and factor out natural levels to look at nitrogen’s total impact on watersheds.
“Hard-working people can and have preserved large acreages in the Adirondacks [through purchase and conservation easements]. It’s the cleanest landscape you can imagine,” Pace says. “Yet we can detect the subtle and insidious changes going on.”
The acid rain that kills aquatic insects and fish, tracked for decades by the New York State Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation, is partly addressed by 1990 Clean Air Act limits on sulfur dioxide in smokestack emissions. Some lakes have recently begun to show signs of recovery.
Meanwhile mercury emissions from Midwestern coal plants remain unregulated. The toxic heavy metal has been found in local fish, leading to government warnings against children and pregnant women eating fish from many North Country waters. S
cientists know comparably little about nitrogen accumulation, which is why McNeil and Canham, who met as trustees of the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack chapter, are trying to fill in data gaps. With nitrogen, Canham finds a lot of variation, noting higher levels on the western side of the Adirondacks, where scientists already know there is also more acid-rain and mercury deposition, and a few hot spots elsewhere, including the High Peaks region. The highest nitrogen levels here are a hundred times lower than the drinking water standard, Canham says, but that’s not the issue.
Canham and his colleagues are also examining levels of phosphorous, which, like nitrogen, feeds algae. But phosphorous in the Adirondacks, where there is little farming, usually comes from fertilizer or sewage from lakeshore development. These nutrients can lead to that murky green, eutrophied water. Nitrogen, however, threatens to cloud even wilderness lakes, where there are no shoreline sources of pollution.
Green ponds are still few and far between, but McNeil—who left a career as an engineer and developer in the Syracuse area to devote his time to volunteer environmental work as well as flying, writing and filmmaking—is not sanguine. “We’re getting to a point of significance,” says the pilot, who now lives in Eagle Lake, Florida. “Time is wasting.”
IN THEIR BEARDS, matching blue jumpsuits, helmets and goggles, McNeil and Canham resemble aviators from another era, flying low (usually 200 feet) and slow (about 65 miles per hour), then swooping down and idling on a lake for two minutes, only long enough for Canham to lean out of the cockpit and scoop water with a collection jar mounted on a pole. Then they taxi and take off again. McNeil’s light plane has the ability to get out of even small ponds. “I’m capable of doing a circular takeoff, where you roll up on one float,” he explains.
The pair flew about 30 days last July and August, based mostly out of the Lake Placid Airport, collecting a dozen samples each day, with permission from landowners to set down on private ponds and from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to land on Wild Forest waters. They will fly again this summer.
McNeil said the project evolved from discussions at the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack chapter, which he chaired for 10 years. Trustees felt they needed more information about the aquatic side of the Adirondack environmental picture to set land-protection priorities. After McNeil’s son was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2004, he and Canham, who had become friends, decided to make a difference. “In a sense, after an event like that, not much matters so you focus on the things that do,” McNeil says. The nitrogen issue fit neatly into Canham’s ongoing research, and McNeil’s plane and pilot skills expedited testing in hard-to-reach places.
He built the 28-foot-long, 38-foot-wingspan Air-Cam from a kit, adding amphibious floats and mounts for video cameras to capture the stunning views and unusual perspective. He plans to make a documentary to educate the public as well as decisionmakers in Congress to spur action against the nitrogen problem.