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BG24 Newscast
September 29, 2023

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BG24 Newscast
September 29, 2023

Satellite program helps identify toxic waters

The Blue Water Satellite Program allows an easier and more cost-efficient way to identify algae and other toxic bacteria in bodies of water, including the Great Lakes.

The program was developed in response to a need for early detection of blooms of bacteria in fresh water systems. The satellite uses imagery to identify, track, and quantify algae blooms in lakes and reservoirs, which determines what kind of bacteria or algae is present in the water. Professors and students have used these images to study how blooms are formed.

Biology Professor and director of the Marine Program, Michael McKay, said some of these bacteria can produce harmful toxins, such as neurotoxins, which affect the nervous system, and hepatotoxins, which affect the liver. These toxins make the water dangerous for drinking and other everyday uses, he said.

“This is a more cost-effective way of identifying blooms, since the alternative is taking boats out and gathering samples by hand, which can get costly and labor intensive,” McKay said. “When blooms are identified, municipalities are able to take action.”

George Bullerjahn, professor of biological sciences, said algae blooms have been found in the Great Lakes.

“Bloom events have been characterized in the Great Lakes,” Bullerjahn said. “They have been found in smaller water bodies both in Ohio and elsewhere.”

Water has been collected in Sandusky Bay, and a bloom of toxic bacteria had been found there.

When algae are kept at low levels, the environment remains safe. When algae get to high levels, it becomes dangerous for the environment, creating a lack of oxygen in the water, which causes many problems. The Lake Erie Dead Zone is an example of this.

This Dead Zone, which appears in the summer months, is dangerous for wildlife in the area, creating a serious risk for anything that might come in contact with it. It’s large enough at times to even be seen from space.

Aesthetics of water can play an important part in summer recreation. Algae gives the color of water surfaces a green, dirty-like appearance, making it look unappealing to potential swimmers and fishermen.

Senior Brad Samsen realizes the dangers of an algae-filled body of water.

“I wouldn’t go swimming in water that was filled with algae,” Samsen said.

One limitation the satellite has deals with Landsat passes not occurring daily, and cloud cover during a satellite overpass may prevent regular timely assessment of blooms. However, the satellite uses high-resolution images to identify blooms, and can be used on bodies of water as small as a pond.

“This allows algae detection in sites that aren’t routinely tested,” McKay said.

The satellite is able to provide daily, weekly and larger snapshot images, and is able to evaluate both large and small locations, making it cost-effective and a efficient way to identify harmful algae blooms.

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