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Monitoring Seneca Lake Water Quality from the William Scandling

02/12/2021 4:27 PM | Kaitlin Fello

Monitoring Seneca Lake Water Quality from the William Scandling

John Halfman, Professor of Hydrogeochemistry

Dept. of Geoscience and Environment Studies Program

Hobart & William Smith Colleges 

You may have wondered, what is that large, chunky vessel that routinely plies the waters of Seneca Lake?  It’s the William Scandling, owned and operated by Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS).  Formerly a buoy tender for the US Navy, then a lobster boat, HWS purchased the vessel in 1976 and converted it for teaching and research use on Seneca Lake and occasionally other waterways connected to Seneca Lake via the NYS Barge Canal System, e.g., Cayuga, Oneida, and the lower Great Lakes. The 65-ft long, steel-hulled, single screw vessel is operated by a licensed captain, who is assisted by a single crew member.  Its hydraulic boom and winch can deploy and retrieve scientific equipment from all depths in the lake.  Because the vessel is licensed through the US Coast Guard for educational and research purposes, it cannot be used as a tour or “party” vessel. 

The William Scandling‘s primary function is to meet the teaching and research needs of the Colleges, an opportunity rarely found at other undergraduate institutions across the nation.  Students can learn about the physical (waves, currents, etc.), chemical (dissolved ions, pH, etc.), biological (plankton, invasive mussel species, etc.), and geological (sediments, environmental history, etc.) properties of the lake.  Introductory and advanced level courses use the vessel.  In addition, upper-level students may conduct faculty supervised independent research projects.  Those outside the Colleges, including participating Science on Seneca high schools, colleges, universities, other teaching/research groups, and selected (ex)presidents and senators, are invited to use the William Scandling for their own programs. 

Educationally, I use it in many of my courses, especially a course on Limnology, the study of lakes.  Besides specific research projects, I’ve also maintained, with significant student help, a long-term monitoring effort since the mid-1990’s that collects and analyzes water samples during the ice-free season at four prescribed sites in the north portion of the lake.  It provides a golden opportunity for students to learn state-of-the-art techniques to assess basic water quality parameters, e.g., the plankton, water clarity, temperature, salinity, pH and dissolved oxygen, and determine how the lake has changed over time.  I also allow interested folks to participate.  Feel free to email me if you’d like to join me on one of these trips. 

One example outcome of the monitoring effort is a multi-decade time series of surface water temperatures. See the graph below. The data clearly reveal that the lake has warmed (~0.2°C/year) since 1995, a warming induced by global warming. Also of interest, cyanobacteria (HABs) blooms have been detected since 2015, when the lake has been at its warmest. Has warmer water facilitated the onset and continuation of nearshore HABs events? Unfortunately, correlation does NOT prove causation. 2020 detected the warmest water on record yet it experienced the fewest number of detected blooms in Seneca Lake. 2020 also detected the warmest water in Owasco Lake, HOWEVER it experienced the largest number of blooms. Go Figure!

Surface water temperatures of Seneca Lake since April, 1995 through October, 2020.  The dashed line reveals the best fit linear relationship of the temperature data.

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