This summer, residents of Florida’s East Coast have been anxiously watching their waterways for signs of algae. Forming the base of the food chain, algae are a group of both visible and microscopic plants that produce approximately half of our Earth’s oxygen. While they are a critical component of our environment, algae can occasionally grow out of control, forming a harmful algal bloom (HAB). In some cases, these HABs can harm aquatic life by causing hypoxic environments as they degrade and smothering fish and vegetation. Other times, algae may produce toxins that can kill wildlife and cause human illnesses. Red tides commonly found in the Gulf of Mexico are caused by dinoflagellate algae. On the Atlantic side of Florida, HABs are typically caused by a different algae called cyanobacteria. Beyond threatening human and animal life, HABs damage local economies with their unsightly and foul-smelling presence.
After a particularly alarming HAB that caused a State of Emergency in Florida just two years ago, residents are on edge, watching local algae sightings as they are reported on the nightly news. Algal blooms have become so troublesome in this area because of a variety of factors, the first of which is high nutrient levels from agricultural runoff and pollution. Another driving force of HABs on Florida’s southeastern coast may be the discharge of freshwater from nearby Lake Okeechobee. In order to mitigate flood damage, the Army Corps of Engineers regularly releases water from the lake into the surrounding estuaries. Coupled with increased temperatures in the summer, the pollution and freshwater discharges allow harmful algae to reproduce at an alarming rate.
Scientists have long been investigating the causes of these HABs in order to better understand how to limit their impacts. In June of 2018, NASA will be deploying a new technology in Lake Okeechobee that will help them do just that. The SeaPRISM (Portable Remote Imaging Spectrophotometer) is a solar-powered device that takes photos of the lake every 30 minutes and sends data to NASA, who will then use this information to calibrate their satellites in space. These photos are taken at several different wavelengths in order to monitor different water conditions. After validating the data, they will publish it online so that local researchers can monitor conditions in the lake.
Scientists from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and the South Florida Water Management District will be collaborating with NASA on this project to track cyanobacteria, the leading culprit of HABs in this region. According to Harbor Branch Scientist Dr. James Sullivan, cynobacteria have a distinct blue-green color that can be identified by the SeaPRISM. Scientists will be able to use the published data to develop a better understanding of what causes the harmful algal blooms and potentially, how to limit their damage.
Do you live somewhere with harmful algal blooms? What actions are being taken help address the problem?
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