Inside NOAA's tracking of Lake Erie's harmful algal bloom

Researchers take to the sky to track
Posted at 7:52 AM, Jul 25, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-25 07:52:22-04

It’s becoming a more common sight. A fluorescent green across large portions of Lake Erie causing concern for those in charge of water supplies, and those that rely on the water for their livelihood alike.

Harmful Algal Blooms, HABs for short, can occur naturally, but scientists believe that human activity plays a role in the increased occurrence of blooms like what’s now become an annual event in Michigan and Ohio.

The HAB spotted in Lake Erie during the summer of 2014 thrust the problem into the national spotlight — for three days, Toledo officials had to shut down the water system due to a toxic threat posed by the water, the same determination was made for residents of Monroe, Michigan. While the spotlight has dimmed for some nationally, the concern of the HAB remains for researchers that know it could still cause harm for local communities in Michigan and Ohio.

The green you see is actually cyanobacteria, which can produce toxins that contaminate drinking water and cause harm to both people and animals. Experts believe extensive use of fertilizer, in this case near the Maumee River, bleed into the water system and fuel the blooms.

Researchers are working on multiple fronts to get the problem under control. Researchers at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory at the NOAA offices in Ann Arbor are working with the region’s farmers to cut back on fertilizer use while also implementing new tracking methods that help people navigate the HAB as it grows and expands throughout the season.

This year’s HAB is expected to measure between a 5 and 7.5 on the severity index — the worst years in recent memory maxed out at 10.5.

Despite the good news, officials said more needs to be done to reduce the size of future HABs.

"Until the phosphorus inputs from agriculture are reduced significantly and consistently so only the mildest blooms occur, the people, ecosystem and economy of this region are being threatened," said U-M aquatic ecologist Don Scavia, a member of the forecast team.

The short-term concerns are important, too. While the bloom can cause major issues, its existence doesn’t mean the entire lake is a problem at any given time. So while work is done to ensure future HABs don’t flare up to the size of years past, work is also being done to forecast the day-to-day movements of current HABs so that businesses that rely on the water can continue to operate, and water supplies can be certain their water supply is safe.

“It’s not all doom and gloom,” said Andrea Vander Woude, a researcher with GLERL. “Unfortunately, we do have these blooms. We’re trying to help mitigate them and decrease them in the future, but it is still going to be a beautiful place to go out and enjoy the water.”

Vander Woude works on a specialized project that allows researchers to get a better look at how the HAB is moving on a regular basis. Satellite images aren’t the easiest to work with because they don’t photograph shorelines well, and clouds can obscure valuable details of the movement. Vander Woude oversees what’s known as a hyperspectral flight — high-resolution data is taken from a weekly airplane trip that can give better resolution and detail to scientists trying to determine what type of algae is present in a specific bloom.

“To see the dramatic change every week within such a large body of water, to see that change every week is amazing,” said Vander Woude. “It changes on the hour depending on wind conditions, how bright the sun is, or how warm the water is.”

The advanced data she and her fellow researchers collect gives advanced warning to municipal drinking water managers — and helps businesses plot out the best way to avoid the bloom while still utilizing the lake.

Research has become more and more precise. These days NOAA links to a five-day HAB tracker online that allows people to view the movements of the HAB just like they would a forecast for a vacation spot. The tracker, available for all to see here, was only an idea a few short years ago.

“Sometimes people want to focus on the worst day, or the worst location, these products and other information show where the clear water is,” said Mark Rowe, a researcher with the UM Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research that developed the tracker.

Of course, there is still more work to be done when it comes to tracking HABs. 7 Action News had the chance to travel alongside a pilot that helps collect the imaging for researchers.

Zach Haslick, a pilot who has been helping track the HAB in Lake Erie for more than three years, said that he’s only witnessed mild conditions so far this year. That said, if you’ve never witnessed a HAB from the air the first sight of the harmful algal bloom by air is shocking even before the season peaks.

Haslick flew a photographer over several checkpoints that he regularly covers for the project, and once he piloted the plane about four miles off the coast of Monroe, a several mile long stretch of the HAB was visible from the sky.

“It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around it,” said Haslick. “It’s kind of like telling someone the difference between a billion and a trillion — it’s like, ‘Oh, okay that’s a bigger number but you don’t visualize how big a billion is,’ up here we realize just how big of a problem this is.”

The good news is that the HAB is following the forecast predicted. The view, though better than years past, is still enough to remind those involved that more work is needed.

“I have a lot of friends that ask me about it,” said Haslick, “I tell them, it’s a lot worse than you realize.”

Work is also being done around the clock to test the water itself. Part of the problem with HABs is that they can, but not all, produce a toxin called microcystin. The toxin is dangerous to both animals and humans and can cause liver damage — even death in severe circumstances.

You can keep an eye on the latest data on Lake Erie’s HAB by visiting their weekly HAB bulletin.