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Significant harmful algal bloom predicted for this summer

Bloom anticipated to be similar to 2003

After an accurate prediction last year, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) once again issued a seasonal harmful algal bloom (HAB) forecast for Lake Erie at an all-day press event at Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island last week. The forecast predicts a significant bloom for this summer, similar to conditions last seen in 2003 and about one-fifth the size of 2011’s record bloom.

“Significant means that people will notice a bloom,” explains Dr. Richard Stumpf, Oceanographer at NCCOS. “However, you can plan your activities around a bloom of this scale.” Stumpf recommended that those interested in getting updates about HABs in Lake Erie subscribe to NOAA’s Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie Bulletin, which offers weekly updates of bloom locations and impacts.

These updates are not only important for researchers, but also for businesses in Ohio’s eight coastal counties, which rely heavily on tourism income. Melinda Huntley, Executive Director of the Ohio Travel Association, also emphasized the importance of accurate reporting of a bloom’s severity and location in the media. “Be specific about location, both where the bloom is and where it’s not,” Huntley said. “In the tourism industry, perception is reality, and if we’re not careful about the way we communicate the issue, we could do more harm than good.”

Representatives from NOAA, Heidelberg University, the Ohio EPA, the Lake Erie Commission, 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 and analyze water samples for nutrients and toxins 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.

“We do expect variations in where the bloom is and where it will be,” explains Stumpf. “Expect variations in the bloom over time, especially depending on wind, which can push algae up on shore to create more visible scum.” Stumpf added that NOAA will continue to evaluate nutrient loading this summer. The National Center for Water Quality Research (NCWQR) at Heidelberg University, as well as Stone Lab’s new Water Quality Lab, will provide much of the information on nutrient levels in the lake and its tributaries.

Phosphorus, which is contained in animal manure and many commercial fertilizers, tends to be the nutrient that determines how much harmful algae can grow in Lake Erie. Phosphorus is believed to enter the lake in the form of fertilizer runoff from agricultural fields, as well as through combined sewer overflows from cities caused by heavy rains. 

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, harmful algal blooms 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.

The Lake Erie forecast is part of a NOAA ecological forecasting initiative that aims to deliver accurate, relevant, timely, and reliable ecological forecasts directly to coastal resource managers and the public as part of its stewardship and scientific mandates for coastal, marine and Great Lakes resources. Additionally, NOAA currently provides, or is developing, HABs and hypoxia  forecasts for the Gulf of Maine, Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. More information is available at www.noaa.gov.

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 www.ohioseagrant.osu.edu. Last week’s webinar is available at www.go.osu.edu/habsforecast2013.

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