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Tracking harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie
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Tracking harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie

Experimental forecasting tool aids local managers

by Caroline Mosley (NOAA Research Communications) and Katherine Glassner-Shwayder (GLERL)

As part of efforts to enhance its Experimental Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin, NOAA is offering the HAB Tracker, a new experimental forecasting tool that aims to aid local managers in decision-making on harmful algal blooms (HABs). The experimental tool is available online on NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Laboratory (GLERL) websiteand incorporates real-time data with modelling to produce daily an updated 5-day forecast of potential bloom distribution and movement.

HABs in Lake Erie have increased in recent decades. As NOAA and partners predicted, the 2015 HAB season continues the trend of large, severe blooms. It rivals the 2011 bloom season, the largest on record for Lake Erie, and comes only a year after the Toledo, Ohio water crisis when half a million people were warned to avoid drinking the water due to toxins overwhelming a water treatment plant in Lake Erie’s western basin. In 2015, microsystin, the toxin responsible for the Toledo water crisis, occurred in some lake samples at far above the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s recreational limits, indicating the presence of a bloom harmful to human health.

The experimental tool provides real-time updates of blooms in Lake Erie, providing situational awareness of blooms between the bi-weekly Experimental Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletins. This increased awareness could potentially help water treatment plant managers to prepare if a bloom appears to be moving towards a water intake line.

Scott Moegling, a water quality manager at the City of Cleveland Division of Water, describes how he uses both the bi-weekly bulletins and HAB tracker to identify the risk of an algal bloom affecting water treatment plants near Cleveland, Ohio.

“I look at the HAB Tracker at least twice a day,” said Moegling, “It provides a simple visual that I can use to assess the risk of a bloom and then communicate that risk to water treatment plant managers and operators.”

The HAB Tracker uses daily satellite imagery, meteorological data, and modeling to produce updated daily 5-day forecasts on the movement and distribution of surface chlorophyll concentration produced by the bloom. The online tool depicts chlorophyll concentrations, with higher concentrations indicating the highest risk from a HAB. The movement of the bloom is based on forecasted meteorological and hydrodynamic conditions in the lake. All of the components provides a prediction of potential bloom intensity and movement that researchers hope managers can use to make decisions about Lake Erie’s water quality.

Moegling explains how he uses the HAB Tracker in conjunction with the vertical mixing analysis on the GLERL website to better understand how blooms spread horizontally and vertically throughout the lake. Since water intake lines are often 20 to 40 feet beneath the surface, it is important to see how blooms spread both on and beneath the water’s surface in order make accurate decisions on whether the bloom could enter the water treatment plant.

"We hope that the HAB Tracker can better aid in predicting the size, movement, and intensity of the blooms, potentially providing valuable information for local managers to protect our drinking water supplies,” says Eric J. Anderson, Ph.D., the lead principal investigator at GLERL.

Harmful algal bloom forecasting requires extensive coordination among researchers and collaboration between different areas of research. To produce and launch the HAB tracker online in early August 2015, daily satellite-derived harmful algal bloom detection from NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science was combined with weather data from NOAA’s National Weather Service , and applied to various models developed by NOAA’s GLERL and Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research at the University of Michigan.

Considering climate change projections, the current trend of larger and more intense blooms will likely continue. Warming lake temperatures, increasing rainfall, and high amounts of nutrients entering the system encourages toxic algae growth. NOAA and its partners continue to develop new experimental tools to assist water treatment managers in making informed decisions.

For more information, contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Research, at or by phone at 301-734-1123.

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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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