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Toxic Algal Blooms to be Detected Earlier With New Tool as Response to $64 Million Annual US Losses

Four government organizations are combining resources to tackle a threat to U.S. freshwater: toxic algal blooms.

These harmful algal blooms cost the U.S. $64 million annually to combat, according to a NASA press release.

NASA is working alongside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to transform satellite data used to monitor ocean biology into valuable information to monitor detrimental freshwater algal blooms.

The new project, using ocean color satellite data, will formulate an "early warning indicator" for toxic algal blooms in freshwater systems and aid public health advisories, NASA reported.

"Observations from space-based instruments are an ideal way to tackle this type of public health hazard because of their global coverage and ability to provide detailed information on material in the water, including algal blooms," Paula Bontempi of the Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in the news release.

While ocean color satellite data has been readily available to scientists, it has not been regularly produced in formats that would assist water quality managers at the state and local levels, NASA said.

The dangers of this environmental hazard were on display last August, after toxic algae in Lake Erie left 400,000 people in the Toledo, Ohio, area without safe drinking water.

Just last month, toxic algae concerns prompted officials to close Waverly Beach Park in Kirkland, Washington, King 5 in Seattle reported. According to King 5, health officials are exploring why the blooms are occurring earlier and more frequently than normal.

There are various forms of algae, some are harmless, but one particularly damaging form is known as blue-green algae, or "cyanobacteria," which can release harmful toxins that can kill wildlife and cause illness in humans.

Harmful algal blooms occur in all types of water, but cyanobacteria tend to dominate in freshwater, according to Tim Davis, a research scientist with NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

"These blooms tend to occur in lakes that have high nutrient concentrations [such as] nitrogen and phosphorus," said Davis. The blooms are the visual manifestation of an unhealthy ecosystem, he added.

Currently, state and federal agencies are working together to find ways to eliminate the overabundance of phosphorus in the Great Lakes.

Cyanobacteria tend to grow between 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 C) and 89 F (30 C). As lakes warm up, the cyanobacteria, tend to dominate, especially in systems that have higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.

"Their growth rate is more closely linked to temperature," Davis said.

Algal blooms tend to congregate at the surface of the water, decreasing the amount of sunlight that can penetrate the water and that can have negative affects on certain types of aquatic vegetation, Davis said. Other effects include fish kills and disruptions of food webs and coastal habitats.

In addition to posing risks to the ecosystem, the blooms can have a negative economic impact, since they typically occur during peak tourism season; Davis said the blooms typically don't form in the Great Lakes until mid-July. For instance, beach towns can experience a loss of tourism revenue if blooms occur along the coast.

"No one wants to go to a beach and not be able to swim in the water," he said.