Lakes in the undeveloped High Peaks area of the Adirondack Park are covered with ice for significantly shorter periods than they were 32 years ago, providing evidence that climate change is occurring rapidly and that not even the most pristine wilderness areas are immune.
Since 1975, five high-elevation lakes in the Adirondacks have had rapid decreases in the duration of ice cover and are now frozen for 7 to 21 fewer days on average, according to a study published April 30 in the journal Climatic Change by a team of researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF).
"It shows us in a detailed way that the climate is warming in the Adirondacks, that it's warming in a way we might not expect," said Dr. Colin Beier, a research ecologist who is the paper's lead author.
Beier said analysis of local climate and lake ice records at ESF's Adirondack Ecological Center (AEC) in Newcomb shows the biggest change in ice cover has occurred in the fall and early winter, with ice forming on the various lakes about two days to two weeks later over the study period. The "ice-out" dates, marking the day the ice was considered melted, changed much less, probably because of the insulating value of snow cover. Three of the lakes recorded no consistent changes in the ice-out date; the biggest change observed was five days. This marks a difference from many previous studies of lake ice in the Northeast, which found more significant changes in ice cover were occurring in the spring.
Beier said the most pristine lake in the study group proved to be the most sensitive to recent warming.
All the lakes studied are within ESF's 15,000-acre Huntington Wildlife Forest, near the geographic center of the park: Arbutus, Catlin, Deer, Rich and Wolf. The most severely affected by recent warming was Wolf Lake, classified as a "Heritage Lake" because of its pristine condition. It contains no non-native species and it has not been negatively affected by acid rain; analysis of its sediments indicates Wolf Lake is in much the same condition it was before Christopher Columbus set sail. The study showed it has lost a full three weeks of ice cover since 1975. The equivalent time for the other four lakes ranged from 7 to 17 days.
"There's no evidence of human impact on the lake. It's a little tiny pocket of untouched ecology," Beier said. "But of the lakes we looked at, it shows the most change, both in the timing of the ice forming and melting, and in its shrinking duration. Conservation efforts are probably helping to protect it but conservation is not a panacea.
"Climate change is a game changer in conservation," he said. "There are places where you've done everything you can to protect these ecosystems and you think they're safe. They're not."
The difference in lake ice duration could affect recreational and tourism activities such as snowmobiling and ice fishing as well as impact water levels in the Hudson River, which flows from Adirondack headwaters. It could also have broad environmental effects on the life cycles of plants and animals. One of the most significant species that could be affected in the Adirondacks is the endangered native brook trout, a cold-water species that attracts recreational fishermen. Brook trout are stressed by warmer water and could face increased competition by other fish species adapted to warm water conditions.
Beier said the study shows the value of long-term data collection and proves the need for more research. "Our knowledge of climate change outpaces our knowledge of how it affects our local ecosystems," he said. "The reality is changes are happening that we have to pay attention to if we are going to adapt to them."
Beier's co-authors were ESF faculty members Dr. John Stella and Dr. Martin Dovciak and Stacy McNulty, a researcher at the AEC. Data for the study were collected as part of the Adirondack Long-Term Monitoring Program at the AEC.
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