Lake Tahoe plays a vital role in predicting hurricane season

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 8:49 AM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Lake Tahoe plays a vital role in predicting extreme weather in the Atlantic Ocean.

“We take our measurements and compare them to these various satellites sensors,” said Simon Hook with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The measurements are recorded in NASA buoys anchored in the lake. If those surface temperature readings are correct, then it serves as a reference point for other buoys in the ocean, and lets scientists know if their satellites are accurate.

“Using these satellite systems to build a long-term record over many, many decades. And so, if we want to match all of those systems together, we have to have some sort of reference point,” continued Hook. “So we’re interested in it, not only from the near term of the weather forecasting, but really the longer term as it affects climate.”

These temperature readings are among the most crucial aspects in forecasting and responding to hurricanes. And due to its size, location and altitude, Lake Tahoe is the perfect spot to collect this research.

“Because it is such a massive volume of water,” explained Brant Allen, a field lab director with the U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center. “Small ponds tend to respond very quickly. Tahoe is more of a reservoir of what’s happened over the last several decades.”

The buoys also provide a range of different research opportunities about Lake Tahoe, including why there’s been a drop in clarity over the last 30 years.

“They collect anything from fire smoke and ash, to just winter dust when we sand the roads. And all of that material basically falls on the lake and has some level of impact,” continued Allen.

Including the wildfires this summer, like the Caldor Fire burning in the Tahoe basin.

“We have seen a direct result from that smoke of a loss of about five meters or 15 feet in the clarity readings,” added Allen.

That’s more of a seasonable effect; likely to be changed by winter storms and lake mixing. But the erosion caused by the fire is more of a long-term problem, as well as the rise in water temperature.

“The warmer is stays through the winter, the less likely this warm layer at the top of the lake will break up. And then you get this persistent warm layer, and then you get less turnover of the lake,” said Hook. “And then you get a change in the biological activity of the lake. Eventually you could get conditions where you certainly would not see a nice, lovely blue lake.”

Thankfully the loss of clarity has plateaued over the last decade, thanks to environmental efforts like restoring wetlands and preventing erosion from reaching the water. Plus the local campaigns to clean up the lake, and raise awareness about how our footprint affects the environment.

“I think there is an increased awareness as far as people coming to the lake,” added Allen. “And how their impacts recreating here at Tahoe have impacts on the lake itself.”

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