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Lake Erie Scientists Predict Significant Algal Blooms

Ohio Environmental Council, July 2, 2013

Sophisticated modeling and solid data stream allow scientists to forecast severity of toxic algal blooms.

Scientists from OSU’s Sea Grant Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Heidelberg University, along with other Lake Erie business owners and environmental groups, are meeting today at OSU’s Stone Laboratory in Put-in-Bay, Ohio, to review NOAAH’s second seasonal harmful algal bloom (HAB) forecast.

Recent advancements in the complex science of modeling have given scientists increasing confidence in the accuracy of their predictions, so this year they have decided to publicize their predictions.

For the past decade, Lake Erie has experienced HABs each summer as lake temperatures increase. These algal blooms threaten the health of the ecosystem and the local economy. The severity of the blooms in a given year have been found to correlate to the flow volumes of tributaries in the lake’s western basin during the preceding spring season.

Those flow volumes relate to rainfall totals in the surrounding watersheds during the months of March – June. Scientists have refined and calibrated their predictive models during the past several years, which represented a striking contrast in precipitation and the corresponding algal bloom severity.

2011 featured persistent, excessive rainfall throughout the spring season, and led to the worst outbreak of harmful algae since the 1970s. 2012 was one of the driest years on record, which led to a far more modest bloom. During each of those years and the past 40 years, scientists from Heidelberg University have been steadfastly monitoring the stream flows of the major tributaries and the nutrient they carried.

Scientists such as Dr. Richard Stumpf from NOAA, used this data to build a predictive model for Lake Erie. Their model successfully predicted the modest algal bloom in 2012.

“Every year is like its own experiment. We must continue to collect the data in order to glean accurate information from our experiences and to adapt our management strategies,” said Dr. David Baker, Director Emeritus of the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University.

Harmful algal blooms consist of cyanobacteria that can emit toxins, harming aquatic systems as well as sickening people and pets. They can render a water body virtually unusable, as occurred in Grand Lake St. Marys in 2010.

The massive blooms of 2011 covered the entire western basin of Lake Erie and periodically extended as far east as Cleveland.

“These toxic algal blooms can profoundly disrupt the aquatic food chain. They present a clear and present danger to the health of people and pets that may come into contact with toxic algae-infested lake water,” said Joe Logan, Director of Agricultural Programs, for the Ohio Environmental Council. “State agencies, research scientists, and interest groups must work together to control these harmful blooms by reducing nutrient pollution.”

Understanding the urgency to gain control of this growing natural resource concern, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture have convened a phase 2 of the Ohio Phosphorus Task Force to make recommendations for reducing the threats of harmful Algae.