‘Beautiful jewels of the sea’: Scientists hope these teeny algae made of glass will help them protect New England lakes amid climate change

At the Lake Fairlee boat launch, Danielle Owczarski and Leslie Matthews scrape the deepest layer of lake bottom sediment — which they hope dates back to pre-colonial times — into a plastic bag for transport to a laboratory. (Abagael Giles)

On a sunny day in August, environmental scientist Kellie Merrell scans the shoreline from a motorboat in the shallows on Lake Fairlee. There are lots of cottages. White pine trees tower over the water, reaching out from a few rocky points.

Merrell is here with a team of scientists from the state to do a yearly assessment of the lake’s health. This happens at a handful of Vermont’s 800-plus lakes every year.

“We’re kind of doing, like, a check-up on the lake — a two-day [check-up], sort of like going to your general practitioner,” Merrell said. “And then we’re going to see if Lake Fairlee might need to go see a specialist or two when we’re done,” she added with a laugh.

The state can’t check on every lake each summer, so the ones with troubling trends rise to the top of the list. And this year, Lake Fairlee was a frontrunner.

Phosphorous has been increasing on this lake in the summer over the last 40 years, and in the spring since at least the 1990s. There’s also been a decline in the water clarity.

Phosphorous is a major source of clean water concerns in Vermont. When there’s too much in a lake, it can cause toxic algae blooms and hurt fish habitat.

So this trend is something Vermont’s Lakes and Ponds Management and Protection Program has been keeping an eye on.

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