NOAA tracks toxic Great Lakes algae from space

Algae forming in lakes and rivers not only harms the water, it also can kill indigenous marine life and the aquatic vegetation needed to sustain a healthy ecosystem.

A new pilot program is taking a close-up look at the problem from afar.

The program, involving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Toledo and Blue Water Satellite Inc., is using satellite imagery of Lake Erie’s western basin to monitor the harmful algal blooms (HABs) that have been increasingly threatening the Great Lake for the past several years.

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The harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie commonly contain cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. Many cyanobacteria release toxins that are known to cause liver and nerve damage in humans, and kill pets and other animals.

If proven successful, the monitoring project could become an ongoing service during HAB outbreak season, roughly April through October each year.

"This experimental research project uses a collaboration between public and private entities to push the state of the art," said Dr. Marie Colton, director of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Each entity brings its unique knowledge and experience to the collaboration, she said. “This public-private sector collaboration can pave the way to new knowledge creation, and processes that may ultimately lead to job growth as the project transfers from research to commercial production."

Researchers at the university and Blue Water Satellite, of Bowling Green, Ohio, will combine the data from the NASA MODIS satellite, the U. S. Geological Survey's Landsat 7 satellite and the DigitalGlobe WorldView 2 satellite.

The data produced could give governmental agencies the ability to see early bloom-formation conditions of the toxic algae across the entire western Lake Erie region within 24 hours of each satellite overpass.

Blue Water Satellite will process low-resolution satellite data daily by using algorithms developed by Dr. Richard Becker, assistant professor at Toledo’s Department of Environmental Sciences.

The company also will process high-resolution satellite imaging every 16 days or on demand using algorithms developed by Blue Water Satellite and Dr. Robert Vincent at Bowling Green State University.

"The fusion of this low-resolution and high-resolution satellite data can provide additional insights into early HAB formation never before possible," Becker said.

In addition to the HAB imagery and data, Blue Water Satellite will provide measurements of total phosphorus for the entire area, having developed the only algorithm in the world that performs this total phosphorus detection and measurement function using satellite data.

Increasing levels of total phosphorus have contributed to the severe HAB outbreaks in Lake Erie in recent years.


About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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