NASA: Less Algae, Not Clear Water, Keeps A Lake Blue

Lake Tahoe’s iconic blueness is more strongly related to the lake’s algal concentration than to its clarity, according to research in “Tahoe: State of the Lake Report 2015,” released today by the Tahoe Environmental Research Center (TERC) of the University of California, Davis. The lower the algal concentration, the bluer the lake.

Data from a research buoy in the lake, owned and operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, enabled Shohei Watanabe, a postdoctoral researcher at TERC, to create a Blueness Index that quantified Lake Tahoe’s color for the first time.

The assumption that lake clarity is tied to blueness has driven advocacy and management efforts in the Lake Tahoe Basin for decades. But Watanabe’s research showed that at times of the year when the lake’s clarity increases, its blueness decreases, and vice versa.

Watanabe combined the blueness measurements with data on clarity. Clarity is measured by observing the depth at which a dinner-plate-sized white disk remains visible when lowered into the water. He was surprised to find that blueness and clarity did not correspond. In fact, they varied in opposite directions.

This is due to seasonal interplay among sediment, algae and nutrients in the lake. Clarity is controlled by sediment. Blueness is controlled by algal concentration, which in turn is controlled by the level of nutrients available to the algae.