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New Program Will Use Satellite Images to Identify, Forecast Harmful Algal Blooms

algal bloom
Christian Fischer
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Four federal agencies are teaming up to use satellite data in an attempt to better predict and prevent harmful algal blooms in lakes.

Algal blooms—a type of cyanobacteria—form in warmer water and are becoming an increasing problem in Kentucky. The blooms are toxic and pose health hazards to humans and aquatic life.

One of the most dramatic examples came last summer in Toledo, Ohio, where a massive algal bloom in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water for 400,000 people. In Kentucky, the blooms have caused officials to post warnings at lakes around the state, advising against coming into contact with the water.

Right now, the only way to know if cyanobacteria is a problem is to physically go to a lake and perform a test.

“[If] there’s scum on the water, that’s a real indicator of cyanobacteria blooms, or it just looks bright green. Otherwise, if it doesn’t look that way, no one says anything,” said NOAA oceanographer Rick Stumpf. “And there’s no monitoring.”

The new system pioneered by NASA, NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey could change that. It uses satellite images to detect changes in color in water bodies to indicate when there could be a problem. Then, officials on the ground can use that data to protect the public.

Stumpf said there’s 10 years of data available, which also means that the system can look into the past to see how lakes have changed over time. And scientists can use that historical information to tell them something about the future.

“With that information, [we] can identify years that were worse, and those could be matched up with weather conditions—was it rainier in the spring or rainier in the summer? Dryer? Hotter? Which allows us to forecast what’s likely to happen into the future,” Stumpf said.

Stumpf said the first phase of the project won’t involve monitoring Kentucky lakes in real-time by this summer, but the commonwealth will be included soon.

Analyzing the historical data will be easier, and could happen sooner. The agencies have tested the concept in Ohio, and will begin monitoring water bodies in Ohio, Florida and California. They’re also developing a mobile app, to allow people everywhere to check on the conditions in lakes in real time.

(Image: Christian Fischer/Wikimedia Commons)

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.