Algae blooms in the Great Lakes weather report? Could happen

Feb 6, 2017

Researchers are refining a system to predict the strength and movement of harmful algae blooms that plague Lake Erie during the summer. The blooms can be dangerous -- fouling beaches and threatening drinking water, especially at the western end of the lake. 

Algae blooms in western Lake Erie

The Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab's Lake Erie HAB tracker is still experimental. But researchers say the fully operational system will provide up-to-date daily information as well as a forecast.

And that will help workers at water treatment plants deal with the problem, NOAA oceanographer Eric Anderson told Great Lakes Echo. “A drinking water treatment plant operator from Cleveland looks at it every morning to see where our best guess is for where the HAB is located in Lake Erie.”

A recently added feature will show where harmful algae exists below the surface, Anderson said. If the algae is close to intake pipes, operators can take precautions.

The forecasts could be extended to other parts of the Great Lakes affected by algae blooms, researchers say.

Researchers use a range of data, including satellite imagery and models of water currents, in the tracking system.

Harmful algae blooms are triggered by excess nutrients, a common problem in western Lake Erie. 

Experts say fertilizer runoff from farm fields is a major cause of the excess nutrients. A drought in 2016 limited runoff -- and the intensity of the bloom -- but in previous years they've a had a devastating impact.

A report from the International Joint Commission, which helps to regulate usage of the Great Lakes, recently called for tougher measures to address the nutrient problem. The IJC stated: "The water quality of western and central Lake Erie is unsatisfactory and unacceptable. New mandatory protections should supplement voluntary initiatives to reduce phosphorus loadings."