[Skip to Content]

NASA Technology to Shed Light on Growing Algae Problem in the Great Lakes

A 2011 LandSat image shows the green scum signaling the worst algae bloom in Lake Erie in decades (NASA photo)

NASA Glenn's S-3 aircraft is one of the Center's multi-mission airborne research platforms.

Harmful Algal Blooms Threaten Public Health, Drinking Water to 40 Million and Billion-Dollar Tourism Industry

Toxic algal blooms are not something most Americans are giving a lot of thought to this summer as they head out on their family vacations, but the danger posed by these harmful algal blooms, or HABs, in the Great Lakes is very real. HABs have the potential to threaten the drinking water supply to over 40 million U.S. and Canadian citizens; pose a threat to public health from their toxicity; and have an increasingly negative impact on the boating, fishing and tourism businesses that depend on the lakes for their livelihood. The problem isn’t going away, as predictions are suggesting significant blooms again this year as the weather and lakes start to warm.

Although most Americans won’t be thinking about HABs this summer, researchers from NASA’s Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Cleveland are focused on HABs. GRC has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) to combat the increasingly growing HAB problem with a new, innovative hyperspectral imaging technology that will provide researchers a unique view of the growing HAB problem. Developed and built at GRC, the hyperspectral imager is ideal for monitoring HABs because it divides the electromagnetic spectrum into a multitude of bands (rather than the very limited number visible to the human eye), enabling scientists to identify a “spectral signature” for certain types of objects. GRC, with its specialized aircraft and remote sensing capabilities, will soon attach the imager to a plane that will fly over the Great Lakes for data collection.

This advancement greatly expands upon the limited remote sensing technologies currently used to monitor the Great Lakes, like high-resolution satellite data. Satellite images provide spatial data but are not capable of providing the spectral resolution needed to differentiate a HAB from a non-harmful algal bloom. This lack of information has resulted in scientists’ having to rely on water sampling methods, which are time consuming and expensive.

“The collaboration between our team at GRC with our cutting-edge remote sensing technology and GLERL’s wealth of Great Lakes environmental expertise and access to in-situ data collection allows us to truly advance the research being done on this significant problem,” stated Kimberly Dalgleish-Miller, chief of the Technology Transfer Office at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. “Identifying a specific spectral signature for HABs is a critical step in helping researchers find the key to not only when but also why HAB events are occurring.”

The issue of HABs in the Great Lakes has become so critical that Congress passed and President Obama signed bipartisan legislation—the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2014—to authorize $20.5 million annually for five years to expand funding for research for HABs in the Great Lakes and elsewhere in the U.S. Although this is a greatly needed step, GRC knows there is no time to waste and is utilizing its hyperspectral imager technology this summer to gain valuable insight into helping researchers find solutions to combat or possibly eliminate the development of HABs.

The Great Lakes Are a Vital Resource:

  • Contain over 80% of the U.S. supply of surface freshwater
  • Supply drinking water to more than 40 million U.S. and Canadian citizens
  • Provide 56 billion gallons of water daily for municipal, agricultural and industrial use
  • Provide more than 500 beaches for recreation
  • Generate approximately $4 billion in commercial and sport fishing business, according to NOAA

HABs Pose a Significant Health Threat:

  • Skin exposure can give people a rash, hives or skin blisters.
  • Swallowing contaminated water can cause gastroenteritis, liver toxicity, neurotoxicity and more.
  • Dogs swimming in or livestock drinking contaminated water can become sick or even die.
  • When algae decompose, they may use up oxygen in the water and cause fish kills.
Read more about how this technology is assisting with the August 2014 algal bloom that affected drinking water in Ohio and Michigan