November 29, 2014

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Scientists team up to predict Lake Erie’s algae appearances

CLEVELAND — NASA scientists are teaming with researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to monitor Lake Erie’s harmful algae blooms, a move that could lead to early warnings for beachgoers and water departments.

A goal of the research is to predict when the blue-green blooms — which adversely affect the taste of water, the health of some wildlife and the desirability of swimming — might appear in future years.

“We want to keep an eye on how they’re spreading and where they will hit landfall,” said NOAA scientist George Leskevich.

In time, that could mean a new Lake Erie early warning system — giving municipal water departments and public beaches ample time to prepare for and treat the arrival of the blooms that arrive late each summer.

That’s important to a region where the Great Lakes are said to generate approximately $4 billion annually in commercial and sport-fishing business, NOAA officials said.

Researchers like Leskevich at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Michigan have been measuring the levels of microcystin — the worst type of blue-green algae — for years in western Lake Erie. They also notify local health departments when toxin levels exceed the World Health Organization’s recommended limit.

The seasonal blooms dogged the Great Lakes in the 1960s, until the federal government limited the use of phosphorus in detergents and fertilizers. After that, the algae appeared to be mostly eliminated, but has reappeared in strength over the last decade, mostly in Lake Erie.

Scientists cite runoff from cities, fertilizers, zebra mussels, and livestock near water supplies as probable culprits.

Until now, little has been done to predict the arrival and movement of the algae. Finding blooms by boat can be time-consuming because of the size of the lake.

NASA scientists aboard a streaking Lear jet loaded with high-tech, high-resolution imaging equipment scanned Lake Erie’s surface Thursday for emerging blobs of toxic algae. Ten thousand feet below, researchers from the NOAA skimmed those same waters, hauled in slippery samples.

The NASA and NOAA teams will crunch the data from sky and water in coming months, creating computer models that could project the algae blooms.

NASA Glenn Research Center got involved in algae monitoring in 2000, funding a study that revealed algae’s specific “spectral signature” when seen in satellite images.

Every plant, animal or nonliving object reflects and absorbs light differently, and has a unique spectral signature.

But satellites pass over Lake Erie only every eight days. Researchers need more frequent images, said John Lekki, an optical systems research engineer at NASA Glenn.

So NASA engineers last summer teamed up with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory to record the spectral images from the side door of an airplane.

NOAA scientists first recorded the light-signature of blue-green algae from their boat. NASA researchers then used that information to track the algae as sunlight reflected off it to their airborne equipment.

“Our goal is to make remote monitoring accurate in real-time,” Leskevich said.