NASA has joined forces with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and U.S. Geological Survey to transform satellite data designed to probe ocean biology into information that will help protect the American public from harmful freshwater algal blooms.
Algal blooms are a worldwide environmental problem causing human and animal health risks, fish kills, and taste and odor in drinking water. In the United States, the cost of freshwater degraded by harmful algal blooms is estimated at $64 million annually. In August 2014, officials in Toledo, Ohio, banned the use of drinking water supplied to more than 400,000 residents after it was contaminated by an algal bloom in Lake Erie.
The new $3.6 million, multi-agency effort will use ocean color satellite data to develop an early warning indicator for toxic and nuisance algal blooms in freshwater systems and an information distribution system to aid expedient public health advisories.
Ocean color satellite data from NASA’s Aqua, the USGS-NASA Landsat, and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 and -3 are currently available to scientists, but are not routinely processed and produced in formats that help state and local environmental and water quality managers. Through this project, satellite data on harmful algal blooms developed by the partner agencies will be converted to a format that stakeholders can use through mobile devices and web portals.
NOAA and NASA pioneered the use of satellite data to monitor and forecast harmful algal blooms. Satellites allow for more frequent observations over broader areas than water sampling. The satellite data support NOAA’s existing forecasting systems in the Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes.
The new network builds on previous NASA ocean satellite sensor technologies created to study the global ocean’s microscopic algal communities, which play a major role in ocean ecology, the movement of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and ocean, and climate change. These sensors detect the color of the sunlit upper layer of the ocean and are used to create indicators that can help identify harmful algal blooms.
Under certain environmental conditions, algae naturally present in marine and fresh waters rapidly multiply to create a bloom. Some species of algae called cyanobacteria produce toxins that can kill wildlife and domestic animals and cause illness in humans through exposure to contaminated freshwater and the consumption of contaminated drinking water, fish or shellfish. Cyanobacteria blooms are a particular concern because of their dense biomass, toxins, taste and odor.
The project also includes a research component to improve understanding of the environmental causes and health impacts of cyanobacteria and phytoplankton blooms across the United States. Blooms in lakes and estuaries are produced when aquatic plants receive excess nutrients under suitable environmental conditions. Various land uses, such as urbanization and agricultural practices, change the amount of nutrients and sediment delivered in watersheds, which can influence cyanobacterial growth.
Researchers will compare the new freshwater algal blooms data with satellite records of land cover changes over time to identify specific land-use activities that may have caused environmental changes linked to the frequency and intensity of blooms. The results will help to develop better forecasts of bloom events.
NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives, and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term satellite data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.
For more information on NASA’s Earth science activities, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/earth