A lasting legacy in the Adirondacks

From acid rain to climate change, our research has preserved fish habitats in the nation’s largest state park

periodiCALS, Vol. 7, Issue 2, 2017

Men hauling fishing lines from a boat
Cliff Kraft ‘75, left, and Jason Robinson, B.S. ‘02, M.S. ‘08, haul fishing lines to collect samples in the Adirondacks. Photo by Dan Josephson.

In the 1950s, fish began disappearing from hundreds of lakes and ponds in the Adirondacks. Local anglers were perplexed. They proposed various creative—and sometimes unusual—methods to bring the fish back: creating spawning boxes, piping in cold water, stocking lakes with different strains of brook trout. Nothing worked.

It wasn’t until 1972 that Carl Schofield, senior research associate in the Department of Natural Resources, identified the culprit: acid rain was making cold-water lakes uninhabitable.

Schofield’s findings were brought to national attention by Cornell limnologist and ecologist Gene Likens, and this information provided the scientific foundation that underpins the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. These government regulations succeeded in reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted into the atmosphere by power plants and industrial facilities, and the lakes of the Adirondacks became hospitable once again. In less acidic waters, small groups of brook trout that survived in local tributaries began to flourish and repopulate the region.

Today, however, climate change is posing another environmental threat to fish in the Adirondacks, and our researchers are looking for new ways to help them thrive.

For more than ten years, Cliff Kraft ‘75, professor of natural resources and director of Cornell’s Adirondack Fisheries Program, along with other Cornell researchers, has been studying the effect of warming lake temperatures on the growth, survival and reproduction of brook trout. Their work examines the genetic capacity of the species to tolerate and adapt to rising summer temperature conditions as well as identifies landscape features that provide cold-water refuge for fish during the peak of summer.

Their findings could ultimately help researchers predict how future changing climate scenarios will impact fish, with implications that extend far beyond the Adirondacks.

“Humans have a tendency to take a sledgehammer to the environment, and we whack it again and again and again and again,” Kraft said. “There are limits to what fish like brook trout can tolerate. And we’re on a course to find out just where those limits end.”

While researchers are still years away from drawing concrete conclusions about climate change’s impact on the Adirondacks, Cornell’s success with mitigating acid rain shows that it is never too early to conserve natural resources and the ecosystems that sustain them.

“The Adirondacks are a beautiful and interesting place,” Kraft said. “When the environment is protected, animals and plants live and survive and they do well. It’s a legacy worth protecting.”