Researchers at IBM have tapped the "Internet of Things" to try and solve some of the crises facing the world's freshwater supplies.

Using a series of sensors, including underwater sonar, Big Blue scientists working on the Jefferson Project have been able to map Lake George's water circulation, road salt and water runoff from nearby mountains, and even create a weather model. Data from the lake, in upstate New York, is vital to understanding the local ecosystem, and the team hopes the lessons learned from the project will be used to protect freshwater sources worldwide.

“The world’s important bodies of fresh water such as Lake George are precious to people, essential to life and drive the economy, but they're under siege from a growing list of threats," said Harry Kolar, IBM distinguished engineer and associate director of the Jefferson Project, in a statement. “The key to protecting this precious natural resource lies in the data, and the stage is now set to discover a deluge of insights about the delicate ecology of the lake and the factors that threaten it."

Work at the lake started 35 years ago, with scientists manually gathering data, until the Jefferson Project automated a lot of this work in October 2013. The project is expected to finish in October next year, after which the team will have a tech blueprint they can apply to other parts of the world. With the recent droughts in California and floods in Texas, the team is keen to stress the impact freshwater can have on local lives.

ibm researchers2 Jefferson Project Director Rick Relyea (left) and IBM Research distinguished engineer Harry Kolar (right) examine a visualization of Lake George. Photo: IBM

“The Jefferson Project provides the unique opportunity for biologists and environmental scientists to work closely with engineers, physicists, computer scientists and meteorologists to understand large lakes at a level of detail and intensity that is simply unprecedented,” said Rick Relyea, director of the Jefferson Project at Lake George, in a statement. “Together, we will make tremendous inroads into understanding how lakes naturally behave and how human activities alter biodiversity, the functioning of freshwater ecosystems, and overall water quality.”

The data collection uses a variety of connected platforms, including an IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer, and multiple sensors around the lake connected through Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. So far, the team has made a series of breakthroughs. The weather model can now predict precipitation within a half mile, and the team can pinpoint the areas where salting the roads is having the biggest impact on the freshwater supplies.

Previous work done in 2012 at Galway Bay in Ireland used some of the same technology from the Jefferson Project to protect the local marine life. Nearby wave energy conversion machines caused giant vibrations, and the team wanted to know what impact they were having. Underwater microphones, on a buoy about a mile from the shore, captured noise and helped researchers work out how nearby dolphins were affected by the bay's sound. 

Turning IBM into a leader in IoT technologies, data analysis and cognitive computing are among CEO Ginni Rometty's top priorities as the company's traditional hardware markets decline with the ongoing move of business and research computing to the cloud.