NOAA Announces its First Seasonal HAB Forecast for the Great Lakes and Nation

By Rick Stumpf and Tim Wynne
Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment,
National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

On July 5, 2012, NOAA scientists at the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s (NCCOS) Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA), Ohio State University’s Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory, and Heidelberg University announced the first seasonal  forecast of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in Lake Erie, a first for the Great Lakes region.  This season follows the worst bloom in decades that occurred last summer. NOAA predicts a mild HAB season for 2012, which is welcomed news for the water quality managers and citizens of Lake Erie.  Less HAB this summer will mean more days on the water for citizens and visitors to the region and less need for state investments in water treatment solutions such as carbon and staff time for mitigating impacts of HABs to the region.

Satellite image of Lake Erie from 2004 showing a mild HAB in the southwestern portion of the lake. Image courtesy of ESA/MERIS; Processed by NOAA/NCCOS.

The Culprit
Cyanobacteria that causes HABs in Lake Erie can form extremely dense monospecific assemblages, colloquially known as a bloom.  Because they can float, witnesses have seen areas of bright green scum on the surface of water under calm conditions.  The cyanobacteria cells can also form clumps, sometimes described by witnesses as green “sawdust” in the water.

Left: Satellite image showing mild bloom in 2004.  Right: Satellite image showing 2011 Microcystis aeruginosa bloom, the worse in decades.  Both images courtesy of ESA/MERIS; Processed by NOAA/NCCOS.

History of HABs in Lake Erie
Major cyanobacterial blooms were common in the 1970s. Lake Erie is a freshwater ecosystem, and like the majority of freshwater ecosystems worldwide the limiting nutrient for algal growth is phosphorus. In the 1980s phosphorus reduction strategies were adopted within Lake Erie and the blooms disappeared.

Aerial photo of cyanobacterial bloom above the north end of Kelly’s Island, Lake Erie, Ohio, USA. Photo credit: T. Archer.

In 1995, however, blooms reappeared in western Lake Erie, this time generally dominated by the specific cyanobacteria: Microcystis aeruginosa (henceforth referred to as Microcystis).  Some researchers hypothesize the reappearance of Microcystis as being connected to the appearance of invasive zebra mussels, which generally don’t filter feed cyanobacteria, therefore giving Microcystis a competitive advantage.  Research continues on that front throughout the region.  NOAA’s project, however, was to provide local water quality managers and citizens with the most advanced notice of blooms and their movements so preparations can be made to  mitigate impacts of those blooms to the coastal communities.

NOAA Develops a Seasonal HAB Forecast
Harmful Algal Bloom Forecasts provide natural resource managers and citizens advance notice of harmful algal blooms, including possible impacts to the public, location, extent, and the potential for HAB development or movement.

Photo of HABs on the coast of Pelee Island in Lake Erie in 2011.

Photo of HABs on the coast of Pelee Island in Lake Erie in 2011. Image credit: T. Archer.

NCCOS developed an algorithm for satellite data that is effective at detecting both areal extent and concentration of Microcystis in western Lake Erie.  The satellite imagery has been collected by the European Space Agency’s Medium resolution Spectroradiometer (MERIS) onboard the Envisat-1 space craft.  The 3-year project to develop a model that allows forecasts of HABs in western Lake Erie is slated for publication within the next month in PLoS One. It has region-wide and, potentially, national implications as it allows managers to know how severe of a bloom season they might expect in the coming year.  That will save managers time and money since the forecasts can help them pinpoint the most effective use of state and regional resources (such as activated carbon in water treatment) to address impacts to the public.

Image of a wake following small field sampling boat on Lake Erie

Image of a wake following small field sampling boat on Lake Erie in July 2011. Image credit: NOAA/NCCOS.

NOAA Continues to Provide Weekly Bulletins to Managers
In addition to providing a season HAB forecast for Lake Erie, NOAA will continue to provide weekly bulletins to managers for western Lake Erie which it has been doing since 2008. Those interested can sign up to receive the bulletins.

You can see other HABs posts when you visit the blog.

NCCOS Blogger Biographies:

Rick Stumpf

Dr. Rick Stumpf

Dr. Richard Stumpf is an oceanographer at NOAA‘s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, CCMACOAST Branch, with 30 years experience studying the coast, with particular interest in the detection and monitoring of algal blooms.  He uses satellite data to solve such coastal problems as habitat and eutrophication assessment and algal bloom monitoring and forecasting, and has applied these methods over most of the US coast including the Great Lakes.  He leads efforts in NOAA to translate research into operational forecasts of harmful algal blooms.  Previously , he headed remote sensing programs for the USGS Center for Coastal & Watershed Studies in St Petersburg, Florida.  He has authored or co-authored some 60 peer-reviewed publications.  He received a B.A. degree in the Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Marine Studies from the University of Delaware.

Tim Wynne

Tim Wynne is an physical scientist at NOAA’s NCCOS, CCMA, COAST Branch.  He has been conducting remote sensing HABs research for over ten years.  He received a B.S. in marine science from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and an M.S. in oceanography from Old Dominion University.  He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland.

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