Scientists develop warning system to reduce harm from toxic algal bloom

Saranya Palanisamy
Algae from Lake Menomin. Photo: NOAA

Researchers have developed a new warning system that can effectively foresee a toxic algal bloom in a body of water and in turn help resource managers to avert its development well in advance.

Toxic Algae, Threat To The Ecosystems

Toxic algae are the tiny poisonous plants blooming in reservoirs and lakes that pose a severe threat to the ecosystem. The natural toxins produced by the algae are not only poisonous to the aquatic life but also have a huge and adverse impact on the ecosystems. The harmful effects of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) include:

Mass destruction of marine life.
Sickness or death of humans due to consumption of seafood infected by poisonous algae.
Depletion of oxygen content in water.
According to NOAA, HABs are a cause of concern as they not only harmfully affect the marine ecosystems and human health, but are also a threat to the local and regional economies.

Automated System To Spot the "Regime Shift" Phenomenon

A study related to the process of reversing algae bloom was carried out by researchers at UVA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and Rutgers University. It was found in the research that automated monitoring systems that spot the phenomenon of "regime shift" — such as speedy development of algae leading to exhaustion of oxygen levels in water— can effectively forecast full-sized blooming of algae beforehand and, in turn, can help resource managers in preventing their development.

Reducing Nutrient Inputs Can Reverse Flourish Algae

The researchers performed related experiments in a secluded lake in Michigan. The process included initiating a full-scale algae blossoming in the lake by slowly supplementing it with nutrients, and then closely monitoring it. Once the bloom in the lake reached certain predecided limits, the researchers stopped the flow of events. It was found that the growth of algae rapidly declined.

Environmental scientist Michael Pace, who led the study, revealed that their automated system perceived early warnings about two weeks before the bloom.

"In the experiment where nutrient inputs were cut off when early warnings occurred, the algae bloom was reversed. These whole-lake experiments show that early warning systems can be used to manage algae blooms in lakes, if rapid reductions of nutrient inputs or treatments for algae are possible," said Pace.

Pace also noted that instead of depending on early forewarnings it would be a better option to monitor and keep the nutrient inputs in check from the beginning in such a way that algal blooms don't occur at all.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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