By Andrew Wickenden ’09
The Iroquois creation myth tells us that the Finger Lakes were formed when God gripped the Earth to bless it. Today, the region is known for the blessings it gives back: the natural beauty of the lakes and surrounding rivers and gorges; the ecological diversity found in those habitats; and the wine and agriculture that provide economic opportunity not only for the region but the entire state. For the research scientists and their students at Hobart and William Smith, the Finger Lakes offer a natural laboratory in which to hypothesize and experiment, measure and analyze, protect and progress.
Whether with other scientists at HWS or with state and federal agencies, for Associate Professor of Biology Meghan Brown, collaboration is key.
“Every environmental threat to a lake that might change its biology is interdisciplinary,” says Brown. “There’s no way to address these potential changes to the food web without other pieces. We can’t understand the biological threats, for example, without understanding chemical and physical threats, too.”
Brown is working on two major invasive species projects on Seneca Lake. In one, funded by the National Science Foundation, Brown is collaborating with Associate Professors of Geoscience Tara Curtin and Neil Laird and with Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Stina Bridgeman to investigate the reproduction of invasive zooplankton—the fishhook water flea—that arrived in the Great Lakes and Seneca through ballast water and recreational boating traffic. With stress-resistant eggs, quick reproductive processes, various appetites, and potential digestive difficulty to the small fish that consume them, the fishhook water flea represents a serious potential threat to the ecology of the Finger Lakes. In order to investigate the establishment of the invasive species, the team must understand and simultaneously document and analyze how the lake’s meteorological conditions, internal currents, and sedimentation processes influence the fishhook water flea’s reproduction.
“We’re interested in stopping the movement of non-native species,” says Brown. “In order to do that, we must understand which stages are moving and when they are moving using weather data, the physics of the lake, and the biology of the lake.”
Brown is also studying a relatively new invader to Seneca Lake, the bloody red shrimp. Funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Brown’s research focuses on the movement, behavior and diet of the shrimp, and ultimately attempts to model the potential impact of this invader.
“Very little is known about the bloody red shrimp because no one’s really studied it in its native region near the Black Sea,” Brown says. “Part of what we’re trying to do is determine how quickly the shrimp are spreading and how they will interface with the zooplankton and fish of Seneca Lake.”
For Brown, the study of invasive species is not only essential to the health of the lakes but a useful tool for understanding processes in ecology and evolution. In addition to the Finger Lakes, Brown has studied invasive species in Lago Maggiore in Italy through a Fulbright, Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Superior, among others.
“Invasive species are an interesting way to test how environmental changes will impact biology, and how to apply our work to issues of public concern. That collaborative understanding is catalyzed at HWS because that’s what we value, and our students crave it.”
KEEPING THE LAKES CLEAN
The Finger Lakes face another threat: nutrient runoff. Nutrients like nitrates and phosphates—originating in septic systems, wastewater treatment facilities and agricultural runoff—cause algae to grow, turning the color of the lakes green. Nearby Owasco Lake, for example, has recently experienced blooms of blue green algae, which is a significant concern, says Professor of Geoscience John Halfman. Blue green algae are often affiliated with impaired water bodies, and some species are toxic to warm blooded animals.
Since he joined the faculty in the mid- 1990s, Halfman’s research in the Finger Lakes has focused on monitoring and preserving water quality, investigating watershed/lake interactions, and uncovering the impact of land use activities on water quality.
Aboard the Colleges’ 25-foot pontoonresearch boat, the JB Snow, or on the 65–foot, steel hulled research vessel The William Scandling, Halfman and his team of students analyze water samples for the amount of dissolved oxygen, alkalinity, pH, temperature, and conductivity, all basic water quality variables. Water samples are also filtered, bottled and taken to the geoscience lab on campus where they are analyzed for nutrient content.
“It’s important for people to have information about the fresh water sources they live around,” says Carly Ellis ’14, who has been working with Halfman to test water samples and track nutrients. “I am interested in water quality because of the limited availability of freshwater and would like to work in this field to help resolve these problems.”
The economic impact must also be taken into account, says Halfman.
“For example, if nutrient loading continues unabated, the resulting slimy, green lake will not attract tourists to the wineries and other major economic drivers for the region,” explains Halfman, who also holds the Finger Lakes Institute Endowed Chair in Environmental Studies.
In discovering sources of lake nutrients, Halfman and his team seek to inform government agencies, watershed protection groups, and concerned citizens of the extent to which organic, agricultural and industrial pollutants are contaminating the lakes.
“The best way to meet these challenges is for everyone in each watershed, regardless of political boundaries and alliances, to band together to find solutions to the issues,” Halfman says. “It will take cooperation but solutions exist to find the resources, and as more people understand the consequences, more people tend to cooperate.”
Weather in the Finger Lakes seems to have a mind of its own, especially during the winter. Thanks to a recent three-year scientific grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Associate Professor of Geoscience Neil Laird, Assistant Professor of Geoscience Nicholas Metz, and their students will be investigating how to make the weather a little more predictable.
Earlier this year, Laird and Metz were awarded an education and outreach grant from the National Science Foundation to bring the Doppler on Wheels (DOW) mobile radar system to campus. Managed and operated by the Center for Severe Weather Research, the DOW has been used to collect measurements of tornadoes, hurricanes and other types of severe weather across the United States and has been featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers.”
This coming winter, the DOW mobile radar will be returning to the Finger Lakes and Lake Ontario Regions with several additional mobile radars, research aircraft, and mobile weather systems to be part of a multi-institutional atmospheric science field project. The NSF grant awarded to Laird and Metz will allow student researchers to collect data on lake-effect snowstorms and then conduct research using the collected data. Using the collected data and weather research computer models, the group will investigate how Lake Ontario influences the development of lake-effect snowstorms associated with the Finger Lakes.
In the summer of 2006, Laird and student researchers began to identify lake-effect snowstorms that had occurred in the eastern Finger Lakes region by examining archived radar data collected for a 12-winter period. “It was amazing,” Laird says. “Virtually nothing was known about the formation and evolution of lake-effect snowstorms on small lakes or how the conditions that lead to their development compare to conditions necessary for Great Lakes snowstorms.”
Two summers and two published articles later, “There was an awareness of lakeeffect snowstorms associated with small lakes and forecasters in the National Weather Service Office were excited because of the application to their winter forecasting responsibilities,” Laird says.
Laird and Metz plan to involve numerous students in collecting data next winter using several measurement systems, such as the DOW mobile radars and mobile atmospheric sounding (i.e., weather balloon) systems. Additionally, numerous students will work with Laird and Metz during the summer research program to investigate several aspects of lake-effect snowstorms and weather forecast models. The research has great potential to help weather forecasters better understand and predict winter storms in the Finger Lakes region.
“Both the field project and the research will provide students opportunities to connect professionally with atmospheric scientists conducting research at other places since the field project is a collaboration of researchers from nearly 10 different colleges, universities, and research organizations,” Laird says. “This type of collaborative effort is an important part of scientific research, and it is great that our students get to have these opportunities.”
THE BIG PICTURE
At the Finger Lakes Institute (FLI), HWS faculty and staff take a holistic approach to the challenges facing the region. From invasive species to water quality to lake and stream ecology to economic impact of the lakes, the FLI has a variety of programs and projects designed to recognize and meet those challenges.
To combat the spread of invasive aquatic species, the FLI has initiated a Watercraft Steward Program, in which the stewards assist watercraft users in inspecting their boats for any aquatic invasive species. Stewards are stationed at boat launches throughout the Finger Lakes as well as southern Lake Ontario bays, including multiple NYS Park and DEC boat launches. In collaboration with Cayuga County and with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, stewards help prevent the spread of hydrilla, European frogbit, water chestnut and other species which have the potential to impede swimming, boating and fishing areas.
“As the interface between academic research and the community, we translate the science into practical action and policy to address existing environmental issues,” says Lisa Cleckner, director of the FLI and an expert in collaborative aquatic research, community outreach and administration.
In addition to programs like the Watercraft Stewards, the FLI’s longstanding relationships with Senator Michael Nozzolio (R-NY), Cayuga County, the Park Foundation, the Finger Lakes- Lake Ontario Watershed Protection Alliance, and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, are essential to research, implementing best practices on agricultural lands, waste treatment and education, says Cleckner.
“We work with our partners—scientists and students on campus, watershed associations, government agencies on the local, regional, state, and federal levels—to identify which resources to bring to bear.”
Cleckner says she’s looking particularly forward to the FLI’s role in New York State’s Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management. As one of only eight hosts in New York State, the FLI will be leading regional initiatives focused on invasive species and the 17-county Finger Lakes Region through a competitively awarded five-year project which, Cleckner says, “allows us to coalesce efforts to support invasive species management across the state.”
On the local level, the FLI has instituted educational outreach for students, teachers and community members; set the precedent for green infrastructure with its state-of-the-art “green” facilities; established a sustainable community development program in which students can address community challenges through the lens of economics, architecture and environmental studies; and, with the work of the students, FLI staff, and HWS professors like Brown and Halfman, the FLI has helped shape the Seneca Lake Watershed Management Plan.
Over the past several years, Susan Flanders Cushman ’98, director of Introductory Biology Laboratories at HWS and a FLI research scientist, has collected samples from Seneca Lake and its tributaries, as well as Cayuga and Owasco Lakes, to document natural aquatic invertebrates, fish communities, and water quality.
“I’m trying to get a biological perspective on water quality,” says Cushman, whose recent work includes a project with the Finger Lakes National Forest to restore streams and hopefully repopulate them with brook trout, as well as advising honors students like Shannon Beston ’14.
This summer, Cushman and Beston will examine a naturally occurring parasite in local streams. The parasite moves from a snail host to fish host, encasing itself on the outside of the fish. Once the fish is eaten and passed by a kingfisher, the parasite’s eggs hatch and begin the cycle all over.
Cushman and Beston hypothesize that the prevalence of the parasite is, at heart, a water quality issue.
“If nutrient pollution levels are elevated in the stream,” Cushman says, “increased algal growth will provide more food for snails, which may promote parasite abundance.”
And here, as Halfman’s research suggests, there are direct connections between human use of the land, water quality and naturally occurring parasites.
“In a drought, pollutant concentration is a factor,” Cushman says. “The lower the water level, the more concentrated the pollutant might be. Higher nutrient levels, higher water temperature, higher algae, potentially more snails, and thus more parasites.”
For Cushman, the research and data analysis all comes back to understanding the natural resources available.
“The Finger Lakes residents are very tied to the watershed,” Cushman says. “They want to know where the water’s going because what’s happening on the land is tied to quality of drinking water, recreation, invasive species, and aesthetic quality of the lakes. The concerns in the Finger Lakes about environmental stressors are complex — hydrofracking, climate change, and others. The work we do provides a baseline to use for comparison later, so we can look at where species occur, when and why.”
Whether examining mercury levels in fish or introducing young scientists to environmental issues during summer programs, or presenting research findings to interested community members, the reach of the FLI’s impact is as vast and deep as the Finger Lakes themselves.