Adirondack harmful algal bloom reports rise
SARANAC LAKE — The slimy green muck of harmful algal blooms have been reported at more water bodies around the Tri-Lakes and the Adirondacks this fall than ever before.
Blooms have been confirmed on Lake Colby, Lower Saranac Lake and Moose Pond for the first time ever. Mirror Lake had a nearly lake-wide bloom earlier this month, the second recorded in its waters in the past two years.
Brendan Wiltse, the senior research scientist with the Adirondack Watershed Institute, said there are multiple potential reasons for the rise in HAB reports.
For one, the state has been getting better at educating people about HABs and encouraging people to use its reporting system, Wiltse said. The AWI has also been testing more often for HABs. Some of these water bodies may have had HABs before but they’ve never been reported, he said.
“There’s no way to tell,” he said.
Wiltse added that blooms forming later in year, as they have this season, are tied to lakes mixing or turning over.
“We know the climate is changing,” he said.
That changing climate is altering the weather patterns at this time of year, and warming fall seasons create conditions more favorable to cyanobacteria blooms.
Algal blooms flourish in calm waters with lots of nutrients, especially in warm temperatures. When the lakes turn over in the fall, nutrient-rich waters at the bottom move to surface. Mixed with calm winds, sunny skies and warm weather, the cyanobacteria can bloom big.
“We’ll often see them happen in more than one water body at the same time, or nearly the same time,” Wiltse said. “Which suggest that it’s a regional factor like climate or weather that’s driving the blooms rather than a specific source of pollution to an individual water body.”
Wiltse said more work needs to be done to study if there is a direct connection between climate change and late-season algal blooms in the Adirondacks. He said such a study could help government leaders of all levels make better decisions.
Wiltse pointed out that cyanobacteria are not an invasive species. The organisms that cause HABs are naturally present in waters and have been part of food webs there for thousands of years. But when environmental conditions change and cause them to bloom out of control, their elevated presence hurts other living things.
HABs are harmful to humans and animals alike. Wiltse said any wildlife could be harmed — mammals, waterfowl, even fish.
Where are the HABs?
The state Department of Environmental Conservation tracks and confirms HABs.
Data from this year shows two reports of a HAB on Barnum Pond between Sept. 3 and 9; one on Copperas Pond on Aug. 11; one on Lake Colby on Oct. 30; one on Lower Saranac Lake on Oct. 5; one on Meacham Lake on Sept. 30; one on Rat Pond on Sept. 2; two reports at Upper Saranac Lake between Sept. 8 and 30; and three reports at Whey Pond between Aug. 15, Sept. 5 and Oct. 23.
Wiltse said a HAB was reported again on Mirror Lake on Nov. 15. Late last month the state confirmed the presence of the second confirmed HAB on the lake since 2020. The HAB reported last week could be the same one, Wiltse said — the wind can blow them around. But it could be a separate one, too, he added.
The DEC also reported 13 HAB sightings on Lake Champlain between July 13 and Sept. 7; two on Lake George on Oct. 26; four on Mirror Lake between Oct. 31, Nov. 2 and Nov. 4; one on Moose Pond on Oct. 23; and one on Raquette Lake on Oct. 15.
In the past, the DEC has confirmed HABs on Barnum Pond in 2016; Eagle Pond every year from 2016 to 2019 and on Horseshoe Pond and Deer River Flow in 2012. Lake Placid had a high-toxin bloom in 2015.
Staying safe around HABs
Not all algal blooms are harmful, but many have been and Wiltse said it’s hard to tell the difference, so the DEC recommends against interacting with a bloom at all.
The state Department of Health says symptoms include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and breathing difficulties. They cause most harm when ingested, either through drinking or inhaling airborne droplets, but Wiltse said they can irritate the skin and eyes, too.
Wiltse said these cyanobacteria produce a slate of toxins, including neurotoxins, that can harm the liver or gastrointestinal system.
If someone experiences symptoms of exposure, the state says they should seek medical attention immediately.
“This is true regardless of toxin levels,” according to the DEC.
Wiltse said the AWI wants to understand how to predict HABs, and figure out how to stop or reduce the chance of them forming in the future to better manage the Adirondacks’ natural resources.
“They do affect how people interact with the water body,” Wiltse said.
He said the AWI’s research can be used to better inform the public about HABs.
He said the more popular water bodies, like Mirror Lake in Lake Placid, have “great” public awareness campaigns. These are important because there’s lots of visitors, lots of recreators on the water there. But other, smaller lakes and ponds do not have as notable campaigns. Unless someone knows to look, or has checked the DEC’s website, they wouldn’t know it could be dangerous.
Wiltse said HABs are usually pretty obvious to recognize. The state keeps an image gallery of confirmed HABs at https://on.ny.gov/3EkNRyT.
“They’re like green speckles or dots,” Wiltse said. “Sometimes it looks like wet paint on the surface.”
“Naturally occurring HABs vary in appearance from scattered green dots in the water, to long, linear green streaks, pea soup or spilled green paint, to blue-green or white coloration,” according to the DEC.
The state has a “if you see something, say something” policy about HABs and the DEC has a HAB reporting form at https://bit.ly/2GaSoqj. Wiltse said this is where the AWI reports all of its findings.
Blooms can last as short as a few hours or as long as weeks or months, according to the DEC.
“Once one forms there’s very little that can be done to address it,” Wiltse said.
There is some new technology used for dispersing long-term blooms in drinking water bodies, but in the Adirondacks, the plan is usually to wait for it to leave on its own.
Wiltse said all the water quality recommendations the AWI makes can help prevent HABs from forming — preventing stormwater from discharging directly into a lake and placing buffers on shorelines to stop runoff reduce the amount of excess nutrients entering the water, and not using pesticides on lawns helps the water quality.
Now, the weather is getting cold and as ice starts to form at the edges of the water, it kills the bacteria in HABs. So the danger the blooms pose to the public is mostly over with. Wiltse said algae can still bloom under the ice, though.
The DEC’s interactive map of active and archived HABs has been deactivated for the winter season, but the data collected is available in tables at https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/83332.html. These tables were updated last week and statistics like the number of overall lakes with HABs will be added soon, according to DEC Public Information Officer Jomo Miller.