Harmful Algal Bloom Early Warning System


Building a harmful algal bloom early warning system in western Lake Erieenvironmental sample processor going underwaterA harmful algal bloom in Lake Erie

In Lake Erie, harmful algal blooms (HABs) typically begin as nutrient-rich water from the Maumee River drains into the warm, shallow western part of the lake. These conditions enable the growth of a type of  algae that creates a toxin called microcystin. In 2014, such a bloom caused the microcystin levels in Toledo tap water to exceed what is recommended by the World Health Organization, triggering a two-day “Do Not Drink” advisory.

Thanks to a grant through the IOOS Ocean Technology Transition project, GLOS is partnering with NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, LimnoTech, The Ohio State University, Cleveland Water Alliance, Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, and RPS Group to build an early warning system that will help to address what is increasingly becoming a regional health and safety concern.

The project aims to create a system that will keep people informed when portions of the lake develop harmful algal blooms (HABs). This is possible by bringing together live data from forecasts and a network of in-water sensors and other monitoring equipment, processing that data, and sending actionable text message alerts when conditions worsen. By making high quality, live information readily available, decision makers in the western basin can better anticipate HABs and react more effectively.

In order to pinpoint the information needs of who would be receiving an early warning and to inform a future business model to sustain the system, researchers at The Ohio State University surveyed hundreds of stakeholders and compiled a stakeholder assessment report.

Attendee cleans a sonde

A network of sensors relays real-time information on where algal blooms form.

At the core of the system is a network of sensors or “sondes” distributed through the at-risk areas. This network has expanded as more water treatment facilities deploy sensors, many  purchased with project funding. While helpful in detecting algae that could produce toxins, this sensor network cannot answer the question, “Is the water toxic right now?”

Environmental sample processors or ESP’s from NOAA can help to answer this. An ESP, or “lab in a can,” automatically tests water for toxins, a process that, until recently, had to be performed by hand. This means that samples can be taken more frequently and increases the accuracy of harmful algal bloom predictions. When added to the network, this data will help enrich information sent via alerts.

Another important piece of the system is composed of HAB forecasts from NOAA. These forecasts are issued issued after sampling confirms presence of the HAB species Microcystis, during bloom season (typically July to October) when conditions are optimal for growth. The Lake Erie HAB Forecast is updated daily and provides information on current extent and trajectory of HABs as they form.

By combining these disparate data sets, alerts can become a high-value, unified decision support tool that actively alerts users when they need to pay close attention to changing conditions, freeing them from continually monitoring multiple information sources.

Above: Tim Kearns, CIO of GLOS, talks about this network of sensors feeding into the automatic alert system prototype from this project.

Above: A demo of the prototype web application showing a parameter-triggered text message alert with a link to a dashboard to the latest conditions.

UPDATE: Currently in the third year of the project, the team is focusing on the continued development of the sensor network and the backend technology necessary to receive and process multiple sources of data. The text alert concept was tested in a prototype in 2019 and was well received by users. Currently, the system functions at a basic level where users can view real-time water quality information. The team is building out the alert system starting in late summer, and plans to release it in early 2021.

Photos: (Top Left) Satellite imagery captured on Aug. 1, 2014 shows the harmful algal bloom that caused a two-day shutdown of Toledo’s municipal water supply. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC link | (Top Right) NOAA GLERL staffer submerges the ESPniagara during a test deployment in June of 2016. Courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Completed Products from This Project

HAB Tools from GLOS

Partners and Collaborators

More on Funding

Funding for this project has been provided by the U.S. IOOS Ocean Technology Transition Project. This national project sponsors the transition of emerging marine observing technologies, for which there is an existing operational requirement and a demonstrated commitment to integration and use by the ocean and Great Lakes observing community, to operational mode.

Want to get in touch? Contact Becky Pearson at becky@glos.org

Below: Sondes from the western basin of Lake Erie in the midst of a Spring 2020 calibration at LimnoTech in Ann Arbor, MI. Photo by Ed Verhamme, LimnoTech

HABs Data Portal