Accurate reporting and predictions of CHABs are vital to avoid water quality crises like that experienced in Toledo in 2014, as well as to allow boaters, swimmers, and pet owners to know when the algae they see is a toxic CHAB or a benign variety. As researchers seek to make modeling and forecasts more timely and accurate, new and emerging remote-sensing technologies are providing critical help.
In Lake Erie, The Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER) and its federal sponsor and sister group the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (NOAA-GLERL) have run a monitoring program for about a decade based on weekly sampling at eight sites near the intakes for municipal water utilities. They also use remote sensing data from satellites and aircraft to forecast the locations and intensity of cyanobacteria blooms three to five days in advance.
To improve the accuracy and timeliness of its forecasts—which are vitally important to water utilities supplying about 11 million people, NOAA-GLERL last year purchased an in situ Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) developed by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
“There are only about 15 of these being used in the whole country, and this is first one to be used in fresh water,” said Tom Johengen, associate director with the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research at University of Michigan (CILER’s) associate director. The $500,000 instrument will be deployed later in 2017 at the Toledo water intake. “It will give us the ability to track the bloom concentrations on a daily basis or even multiple times a day instead of weekly.”
Researchers at NOAA-GLERL and others in the CHAB research community are enthusiastic about other evolving technologies, especially new capabilities for buoy sensors, drones, and low-orbit satellites.
Deploying an Environmental Sample Processor - Photo Credit: NOAA
To begin with, they’re getting better at interpreting satellite data. And new satellites are providing richer data. “The European space agency just launched two brand new satellites with improved ocean color sensors,” said Johengen. Combined with data from airplanes equipped with hyperspectral sensors, “this additional data will allow us to tease apart more definitively the different types of algae that might be present in the water.”
Meanwhile, CHABs continue to rear their ugly blue-green heads in new locations, a sober reminder that water users are in a long-term battle with the polluted runoff, climate change, and other factors that are driving growth of these toxic creatures.
“One of the most surprising recent findings was that up in Lake Superior, which we all think of being the cleanest lake, there was evidence of a bloom in 2015 after a major flooding event flushed in significant levels of nutrients,” said Johengen. “Local researchers saw floating algal blooms around Apostle Islands where they had never been described before. All lakes are susceptible to harmful algal blooms if the nutrient inputs get out of balance.”