Over the course of the weekend, algal blooms became the topic of many news stories. Algal blooms, while not atypical, normally do not garner front-page headlines. However, hundreds of thousands of Ohio residents are presently bearing the full brunt of this latest epidemic, which is precluding their ability to drink local water. So what is an algal bloom? In plain terms, and algal bloom is a large population of algae in a body of water. There are many types of algae, and most are very tiny organisms. However, when algae form a bloom (often referred to as red tide because of the color the growing algae impart on the water), the rapid growth of the algae can result in release of toxins, ultimately making the water harmful to marine life and unsafe for drinking by the local population.
It is important to note that an algal bloom like the current one in Toledo is not an entirely isolated incident (more to come on this shortly), and that algal blooms in fact have been widespread for years throughout the world. However, it is equally important to note that the International Space Station (ISS) is taking a proactive role in better understanding algal blooms and other environmental issues that may cause harmful effects on marine life and water purity.
For instance, the Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO) is an imaging spectrometer located on the ISS capable of gathering scientific research on coastal zones and other regions around the world (http://hico.coas.oregonstate.edu/). This imager is currently being utilized by NASA and the ISS National Lab to better understand our planet. In fact, in 2012, the ISS National Lab put forth a Request for Information (RFI) on utilization of the HICO for commercial and academic interests, garnering significant response. Following that RFI, the ISS National Lab awarded Dr. Ruhul Amin of the Naval Research Laboratory with a research grant to study harmful algal blooms, like the one in Toledo, using HICO. This project focuses not only on early detection of harmful algal blooms but also on classification of algae to determine which blooms are potentially a threat to humans and the environment.
More recently, the ISS National Lab awarded a joint investigation from Dr. Richard Becker from the University of Toledo and Dr. Robert Shuchman of Michigan Technological University, who will collaborate on a project using HICO data to develop algorithms for monitoring water quality and algal species in the Great Lakes—with Becker to focus specifically on Lake Erie. These results may influence the assessment of the Great Lakes ecosystem and drinking/recreational water sources and also aid in determining the extent of algal blooms in this region that pose health risks.
In other words, the research mentioned above focuses specifically on the region currently affected by the algal bloom.
“This weekend’s events are indeed unfortunate for the Toledo and Lake Erie communities, however through utilization of platforms like the International Space Station and the HICO instrument, we are in a better position to ultimately evaluate and understand how to mitigate the effects of algal blooms and other harmful instances that influence our regions,” said the ISS National Lab Chief Operating Officer Duane Ratliff. “In the future, through ISS utilization and other high-resolution imagers in space, we can continue to learn more about our planet and hopefully create avenues to alleviate the detrimental effects of harmful algal blooms through early detection.”