The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science issued the first-ever seasonal harmful algal bloom forecast for Lake Erie at an all-day press event Thursday at Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory. The forecast predicts a mild bloom, similar to conditions last seen in 2007 and about one-tenth the size of last year’s bloom.
“A mild bloom is great news for this year,” said Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, Director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory. “But this is happening because we’re in a drought, not because phosphorus loading to Lake Erie has improved. If we have a real wet spring in 2013, we could be right back to where we were.”
Phosphorus, which is contained in many commercial fertilizers, tends to be the nutrient that determines how much this harmful algal species can grow in Lake Erie. Phosphorus usually enters the lake in the form of fertilizer runoff from agricultural fields, as well as through combined sewer overflows caused by heavy rains.
Representatives from NOAA, the University of Toledo, Heidelberg University and Ohio Sea Grant were on hand to not only answer questions related to the forecast and HABs in general, but also demonstrated techniques used to sample algal blooms as part of a science cruise onto Lake Erie. Sampling algal concentrations is an important part of validating and refining computer models like the one used to create NOAA’s forecast, because it allows researchers to determine whether model predictions match up with actual conditions in the lake.
“It’s not enough to have satellite images,” explains Dr. Richard Stumpf, Oceanographer at NCCOS. “Without field data, you have nothing.” This summer, that data will be collected at Stone Lab to help NOAA modelers further improve the algorithms used to convert satellite images of Lake Erie into actual and predicted algal concentrations. Collaborations with the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University, as well as with the University of Toledo, also continue to provide information on nutrient levels in the lake and its tributaries.
In addition to the morning press events, a live webinar also allowed additional reporters and the general public to ask questions about the forecast, HABs and nutrient loading in Lake Erie. More than 100 people attended the online session, which is available for viewing at go.osu/habsforecast.
Harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie most often consist of Microcystis, a cyanobacterium — more commonly called blue-green alga — that can produce a liver toxin called microcystin. The toxin can be removed from drinking water drawn from the lake, but increases the cost of water treatment by $3,000 or more per day. In addition, Microcystis can severely reduce tourism income, as recreational water use is made hazardous by the toxin, or unpleasant by layers of blue-green algae floating on the water’s surface. Being able to forecast the HAB’s extent allows community officials and tourism managers to prepare for its impacts and adjust seasonal budgets in advance instead of reacting to the event as it happens.
Located on the 6.5-acre Gibraltar Island in Put-in-Bay harbor, Stone Laboratory is The Ohio State University’s Island Campus on Lake Erie and the education and research facility of the Ohio Sea Grant College Program. The Ohio State University’s Ohio Sea Grant College Program is part of NOAA Sea Grant, a network of 32 Sea Grant programs dedicated to the protection and sustainable use of marine and Great Lakes resources. For information on Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab, visit ohioseagrant.osu.edu.