Mapping Historic Harmful Algal Bloom Events Helps Combat Future Outbreaks, Protect Public Health, Recreation

 

Project Summary: Mapping historic harmful algal blooms has increased our understanding of the relationship between blooms and their causal factors and will lead to more effective future management.

 

Location: Regional

 

 

A water sample taken from western Lake Erie during a harmful algal bloom in August, 2013. Photo courtesy of Michigan Technological University.

A water sample taken from western Lake Erie during a harmful algal bloom in August, 2013. Photo courtesy of Michigan Technological University.

Description: In normal concentrations, algae are an important component of healthy freshwater systems. When supplied with excessive nutrient levels in water warm enough to promote growth, however, cyanobacteria can multiply out of control to form harmful algal blooms that cause numerous health and environmental problems. Exposure to contaminated water can result in ailments ranging from liver failure, respiratory issues, vomiting and indigestion, skin and eye irritation, and even tumor growth. Harmful algal blooms can also be fatal to household pets and numerous species of fish and wildlife. Unfortunately, the Great Lakes have seen a dramatic rise in the frequency and severity of harmful algal blooms over the last decade. In 2014, a bloom near Toledo, Ohio, poisoned the water, leaving more than 400,000 people without access to safe drinking water for nearly 3 days. To effectively manage and prevent harmful algal blooms, health and environmental officials need to understand the relationship between blooms and their causal factors.

 

Thanks to a grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, researchers from Michigan Technological University are studying harmful algae bloom trends to help guide future management in Wisconsin’s Green Bay in Lake Michigan, Michigan’s Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron, and the western basin of Lake Erie on the shores of Ohio. Researchers used archived satellite imagery to record the extent and biomass of algal bloom events in these areas from 2002 to 2012. The data was correlated with data on potential causal factors over this same time frame, including nutrient loading and water temperatures. This provided a fuller understanding of the relative importance of various algal bloom causes

Satellite imagery in western Lake Erie shows the extent and biomass of harmful algal blooms, which can then be compared with potential causal factors. Photo courtesy of Michigan Technological University.

Satellite imagery in western Lake Erie shows the extent and biomass of harmful algal blooms, which can then be compared with potential causal factors. Photo courtesy of Michigan Technological University.

and improved the quality of harmful algal bloom predictive models, allowing researchers to more accurately estimate the efficacy of targeting any single cause to reduce future outbreaks. This is important, because while harmful algal blooms are the product of both increased water temperatures and nutrient loading, we can be much more successful at reducing nutrient levels over a short time frame through local efforts. Thanks to the results of this monitoring program, health and environmental officials hope to work collaboratively with farmers to find new and creative approaches to fertilization and crop management that will limit nutrient runoff. This study also provides important data on water conditions that can help inform the decision making of fishermen, sailors, beach managers and the general public. Michigan Tech plans to continue monitoring future harmful algal bloom trends to determine the efficacy of these improved practices.

 

Approximate cost of project: Approximately $400,000. Of this, $281,612 was provided by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

 

Resource challenges addressed: Harmful algal blooms, agricultural runoff.

 

Key partners (public and private): Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Michigan Technological, University, University of Michigan Water Center, EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, Great Lakes Observing System, NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, and the USGS Great Lakes Science Center

 

Types of jobs created: Regulators, monitoring scientists, modeling scientists, GIS technicians.

 

Results and accomplishments: The study provided a fuller understanding of what causes harmful algal blooms, leading to the creation of more advanced models to help researchers target solutions to reduce future outbreaks. Health and environmental officials hope to work collaboratively with farmers to find new and creative approaches to limit nutrient runoff such as altering fertilization schedules, using organic animal waste fertilizers, and establishing riparian buffers between their crops and water bodies to absorb these nutrients before they enter the watershed.

 

Website: www.mtrihabsmapping.org

 

Originally published on September 15, 2015.

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