History lurks below the surface: New York is home to six of nation’s 36 meromictic lakes

 

Deadman’s Point at Green Lake in Green Lakes State Park, Fayetteville, is home to one of New York’s six meromictic lakes, of which there are only 36 nationwide. Chalky shoreline formations created by bacteria are visible in the foreground. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Deadman’s Point at Green Lake in Green Lakes State Park, Fayetteville, is home to one of New York’s six meromictic lakes, of which there are only 36 nationwide. Chalky shoreline formations created by bacteria are visible in the foreground. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

From the rugged majesty of the Adirondacks to the labyrinthine depths of the subterranean cave system, the serenity of Lake Ontario’s shores to the quiet whispering of the St. Lawrence River, chances are good that no matter where you stand in Northern New York, breathtaking views or interesting natural formations are just a stone’s throw away. While much of the beauty here is obvious, there are some formations that are not exactly what they seem.

Surface and bottom waters mix seasonally in traditional lakes, delivering oxygen to the bottom, which in turn allows fish and plant life to survive. A meromictic lake is one whose waters do not mix. They are rare, especially in temperate climates like that of New York state. There are only 36 known meromictic lakes in the world. New York state is home to six of them, and three of the six are located just outside of Syracuse in the towns of Fayetteville and DeWitt: Green Lake, Round Lake and Glacier Lake.

Meromictic lakes are Mother Nature’s time capsules. Because their waters do not mix, the sediment along the lake bottom is not disturbed. This undisturbed sediment forms a natural record of environmental and aquatic conditions that often predates recorded history. Not surprisingly, this sediment is of particular interest to geologists and environmental scientists.

At a depth of 195 feet, about the height of Watertown’s Dulles State Office Building, Green Lake is the deepest of three local meromictic lakes. The rocks surrounding the lake are rich in natural salts that leach into the water and create a layer of brine on the lake floor. While this oxygen-poor and corrosive environment is inhospitable to fish or plants, Green Lake is home to bacteria and rare forms of algae that give the lake its blue-green color and thus its name.

Near Green Lake is its sister lake, Round Lake. It is the shallower of the two, measuring 180-feet deep, although early settlers and local Native American tribes believed it to be bottomless. It was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1975.

Green Lake was the first meromictic lake identified in the nation. It was named Lake Sodom by American geologist Lardner Vanuxem, who discovered the lake’s properties in 1839. By 1849, the lake had already been extensively studied and widely reported on in the scientific community. While Mr. Vanuxem was the first white man to study the lake, Green Lake was well known to the native Onondaga tribe whose ancestral homeland stretched from what is now the New York-Pennsylvania border up through Watertown and toward Canada.

Green Lake was most likely formed by retreating glaciers during the last Ice Age that vanished between 14,000 to 10,000 years ago. Popular geological theory suggests that Green Lake was originally located in an ancient river basin. As the glacier retreated, melt water formed a waterfall that slowly carved a depression into the soft limestone basin, forming what is called a plunge pool. As the glacier retreated further, the waterfall eventually dried up, leaving behind the deep plunge pool that is now Green Lake.

Green Lake is located in Green Lakes State Park in Fayetteville, just outside of Syracuse. The land that now makes up Green Lakes State Park was originally part of the Military Tract, so named because after the land was surveyed in 1792, it was divided into lots and given to American Revolution veterans as compensation for their service. The land that makes up the park today was held by the same family from 1817 until the park was formed in 1928. Two of the heirs still own adjacent land.

Lenka P. Walldroff is former curator of collections for the Jefferson County Historical Museum. She is a former museum specialist and conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She lives in Jefferson County with her husband and two children. Her column appears in every issue.