Tahoe Environmental Observatory Network looks beyond the lake

A new multi-organization collaboration is collecting data on everything from wildlife to weather around the Lake Tahoe Basin and making it accessible to researchers, policymakers and the public

Students learning data collection methods in a forest.

Tahoe Environmental Observatory Network looks beyond the lake

A new multi-organization collaboration is collecting data on everything from wildlife to weather around the Lake Tahoe Basin and making it accessible to researchers, policymakers and the public

Students learning data collection methods in a forest.

The University of Nevada, Reno, in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station and the Tahoe Science Advisory Council, is launching the Tahoe Environmental Observatory Network (TEON), a new initiative to better understand the health of the Lake Tahoe watersheds and ecosystems, and make collected data accessible to everyone.

Sudeep Chandra, director of the University of Nevada, Reno’s Global Water Center and Ozmen Institute for Global Studies, and Gina Tarbill, research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service at the Pacific Southwest Research Station, have been on the project since its inception and are excited about its holistic nature. Both are members of the Tahoe Science Advisory Council.

“A lot of the focus in the past has been on the lake and water quality,” Tarbill said. “In this project, we're trying to zoom out and look at the forest and how changes to the forest can affect the lake and the watershed of Tahoe altogether.”

A researcher takes a selfie by a riverbed while collecting water samples.
University of Nevada, Reno Postdoctoral Researcher Emily Burt is working with principal investigators Sudeep Chandra, Scott Allen, and Joanna Blaszczak in managing TEON sensor installations and sampling.

This new project looks beyond the lake’s basin to the streams, rivers, wildlife, weather and runoff that impact the lake, giving researchers and policymakers a more complete picture of how to best protect the lake, its famed clarity and its natural ecosystems. To accomplish this, TEON is setting up a grid of data-capturing systems around the lake, creating a network of sensors that update regularly with live information. With this data, researchers can assess conditions and changes in real-time across the covered area, an important tool in understanding the health of Lake Tahoe.

“In this network, we use not only high-tech tools that can sense the environment every hour, every minute within the system, but we also make direct observation of ecosystems that have been measured in the past,” Chandra said. “The Tahoe Environmental Observatory Network builds upon previous research projects and monitoring programs. In the past, we established research programs that characterize a baseline of understanding of the watershed down to the lake and lake conditions, over short- and long-term periods. What we're trying to do now is put in high-frequency sensors to understand environmental change within the systems. For example, we're putting in game cameras to track when wildlife is present in certain regions. We're putting in sensors in the water that allow us to understand oxygen and temperature in real-time conditions during different climatic events.”

Researchers set up a data collection tower in a meadow.
Graduate students Abigail Sandquist (Ph.D in hydrology) and Sydney Corcoran (M.S. in Hydrology) install a weather station in a meadow, many of which are being installed throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin.

The network is one of the first of its kind in the area, with sensors collecting wildlife, geographic, watershed and environmental data, allowing for an overarching understanding of lake changes in the past, present and future. To get the most accurate picture of lake conditions, Tarbill’s team is also working to set up sensors that capture effects from urbanization.

“What we are trying to do is set up a monitoring system that can look at the entire basin as a whole,” Tarbill states. “This is difficult because the Tahoe Basin is really different depending on what side of the lake you're on or what elevation you're at. We're trying to create a system that is representative of all these different parts of Tahoe. To do that, we have to set up a grid across many different habitats while also thinking about the sub watersheds, which also need to be represented, because they differ depending on how much urbanization there is or what kind of habitats they are in. Those factors have impacts on water quality and the lake as a whole.”

As data streams in from TEON, researchers will be able to make the most timely and accurate assessments of current conditions in the Lake Tahoe Basin and compare it to data sets from the past to understand implications for the future. Already, with initial data, scientists like Tarbill and Chandra have confirmed past research showing ecosystem changes, including a diminishing old-growth forest, fluctuating water temperatures and inconsistent loads of nutrients in the water, potentially affected by climate change and general urbanization of the basin. The development of TEON is contributing to a pool of current data that could help predict future changes, allowing scientists and policymakers to address issues before they affect Lake Tahoe.

A Successful Collaboration

Unique to the project is its basin-wide multi-organizational collaboration. The group is notably interdisciplinary, with partners including the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, California Tahoe Conservancy, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Nevada Division of State Lands, California State Parks, Tahoe Institute for Natural Sciences, Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, Biologist Interagency Group and the Tahoe Fund. The organizations’ interest in the data network range from using it for scientific study, for enhancing climate adaptation and for policy creation in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

“The University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe is a strategic partner in implementing the Tahoe Environmental Observatory Network,” Chandra said. “We utilize the campus along with our collaborations with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station as our home base, and we're trying to implement this program right here in Tahoe so it can be utilized as a model for understanding environmental change in other ecosystems.”

A researcher collects data while standing waist-deep in a pond.
Data collection extends into ponds that eventually feed into the lake.

This collaborative project is a multi-organizational approach to understanding and preparing for climate changes in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The impetus to create this network stemmed from a need for interdisciplinary partnership, which is crucial in caring for the ecosystem of the lake while also protecting its economies and cultures. With these groups working together, the network can focus on questions important to climate change mitigation efforts.

“We live in a dynamic world,” Chandra stated. “We have shifting climate, the introduction of species in the lake, wildfires that come through. Our goals are to try to understand and link how these extreme events would change forest structure, animal behavior and eventually the water quality in the lake. We expect to learn about the resilience of Lake Tahoe and the streams and watersheds when there are these environmental perturbations. We are asking questions like when do these changes last for a long time? Or maybe when do we see immediate recovery?”

Most unique to this program is that the data collected will be open for public use on a user-friendly website. Avid birders, for example, other scientists, policymakers and interested community members will be encouraged to use this as a resource for planning and to spark curiosity about the Lake Tahoe ecosystem.

“We plan to put everything in a database that is available online,” Tarbill said. “The general public, scientists, researchers and managers in the basin and other areas can access that data and use it to inform their own research or management decisions. For example, we're going to be taking wildlife photos at camera stations and recording birdsong so that we can identify the bird community in the area."

For those who have been connected to the lake their whole lives, to communities who depend on it as a resource, and for those who have found their connection to nature by spending time outside, the protection of Lake Tahoe is imperative. TEON serves as an example of innovation in scientific data collection and successful interdisciplinary collaboration between The University of Nevada, Reno, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station and partners within the Tahoe Science Advisory Council. The hope is that this project can mitigate the harmful effects of climate change before they occur. 

“I think understanding the effects of climate change is the most important thing we can do right now,” Tarbill said. “We need to know what has happened and be able to better predict what will happen so that we can ensure that we have these forests and this beautiful lake forever.”

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