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New robotic lab tracking toxicity of Lake Erie algal bloom
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New robotic lab tracking toxicity of Lake Erie algal bloom

Editor's note: This story and video were shared with NOAA by the University of Michigan. Please go online to read the more detailed article by Jim Erickson, senior public relations representative at UMichigan. 

ANN ARBOR—A new research tool to safeguard drinking water is now keeping a watchful eye on Lake Erie. This week, a robotic lake-bottom laboratory began tracking the levels of dangerous toxins produced by cyanobacteria that bloom each summer in the lake's western basin.

The goal is to provide advance warning to municipal drinking water managers and thereby prevent a recurrence of the water crisis that left more than 400,000 Toledo-area residents without safe drinking water for about two days in early August 2014 due to high levels of microcystin toxins.

The purchase of the $375,000 device, which is known as an environmental sample processor or ESP, was a direct response to the Toledo event. It is positioned at a spot on the lake bottom where it can provide about one day's notice if highly toxic water appears to be headed toward the city's water intake.

Tests will be done every other day initially, then increased to once a day starting Aug. 1 to coincide with the expected peak in bloom toxicity. Test results are automatically emailed to the inboxes of researchers back in Ann Arbor. 

"Our number one goal is to protect water intakes and to prevent public exposure to these toxins," said aquatic ecologist Tom Johengen, associate director of NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) at the University of Michigan. "If this device had been in place in the summer of 2014, it would have made a difference."

The project is a collaboration between CIGLR, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) in Ann Arbor, NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. The robotic lab, which goes by the name ESPniagara, was purchased with funds from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which also helps pay the operating costs.

Two more ESPs will be deployed for testing in western Lake Erie next summer and should be in regular service in 2019, said Timothy Davis, a molecular ecologist at NOAA's Ann Arbor lab and leader of the GLERL-CIGLR harmful algal bloom monitoring team. Ultimately, toxicity data from the three autonomous labs will be incorporated into short-term algal bloom forecasts for the western Lake Erie basin.

"Hopefully, we will never have an event like Toledo again, because we'll be able to forecast bloom location, movement and toxicity with accuracy so that water treatment managers know when it's coming and can be prepared," Davis said.


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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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