NOAA's Ecological Forecasting Services

Protecting Human Health and Coastal Economies with Early Warnings

Gulf of Maine

Harmful Algal Blooms

Toxic blooms of Alexandrium fundyense, also known as red tide in New England, have resulted in extensive closures of shellfish harvesting. Closures were estimated to have caused $18 million in lost shellfish sales in Massachusetts in 2005. NOAA-funded research has led to the development of models that can predict Alexandrium blooms. Weekly forecasts allow managers and the shellfish industry minimize harvesting closures while still protecting public health.

Delaware Bay

Pathogens

The harmful bacteria Vibrio vulnificus is often present in the Delaware Bay in the summer. Knowing when and where to expect V. vulnificus may help people to avoid a dangerous exposure, especially for those with compromised immune systems. NOAA is creating experimental forecast maps to depict the probability of encountering V. vulnificus in the Delaware Bay.

Chesapeake Bay

Hypoxia

The Chesapeake Bay has a watershed that stretches across six states and a population of over 16 million people. Human impacts continue to be significant. NOAA is conducting a multidisciplinary and integrated program to study hypoxia and the impacts of multiple stressors in the region.

Harmful Algal Blooms

Thirty-seven potentially harmful species of phytoplankton, many of which produce seasonal blooms, are found in the Chesapeake Bay. An experimental forecasting system has been developed to predict the presence or relative abundance of the following three: Karlodinium veneficum, Prorocentrum minimum, and Microcystis aeruginosa.

Pathogens

The harmful bacteria Vibrio vulnificus is often present in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer. Knowing when and where to expect it may help people to avoid a dangerous exposure. NOAA is creating experimental forecast maps to depict the probability of encountering V. vulnificus in the Chesapeake Bay.

Western Florida

Harmful Algal Blooms

Toxic blooms of Karenia brevis, also known as the red tide, bloom almost every year along the western Florida coastline. These blooms have been the cause of large expanses of coral reef, benthic organism, and fish kills, and have an estimated economic impact of $19 to $32 million dollars a year. NOAA’s programs provide immediate assistance to states when a bloom is about to occur. HAB Forecast Bulletins are distributed twice weekly to the management community during active bloom periods helping to reduce the impact of HAB events through rapid, coordinated responses.

Gulf of Mexico

Hypoxia

Perhaps the best known and largest hypoxic zone in the United States is the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The consequences of such a large dead zone include massive fish kills, loss of critical coastal habitat, and economic losses related to commercially valuable shellfish closures. NOAA’s ability to forecast the dead zone’s size is critical in managing nutrient loads and understanding the effectiveness of nutrient reduction efforts in the Mississippi River Watershed.

Texas

Harmful Algal Blooms

Toxic blooms of Karenia brevis along the coast of Texas have been responsible for fish kills and commercially valuable shellfish bed closures, resulting in economic impacts exceeding tens of millions of dollars. NOAA’s programs provide immediate assistance to states when a bloom is about to occur. HAB Forecast Bulletins are distributed twice weekly to the management community during active bloom periods helping to reduce the impact of HAB events through rapid, coordinated responses.

Pacific Northwest

Harmful Algal Blooms

Several types of harmful algal blooms cause problems along the Washington outer coast and in Puget Sound, including Alexandrium, Pseudo-nitzschia, Dinophysis and Heterosigma. The toxins produced by these organisms have been transferred up the food chain to shellfish or have caused mortality of net-penned salmon. Washington coast blooms have resulted in annual lost expenditures totaling almost $25 million.

Pathogens

The pathogenic bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus has been linked to a significant increase in gastroenteritis from consumption of raw oysters harvested from Washington State. This adversely affects both public health and the shellfish industry valued at $108 million annually. NOAA is in the process of operationalizing a Pacific Northwest HAB bulletin for early warning of HABs that cause razor clams to become toxic on Washington’s outer coast. Early warning capacities for HABs and pathogens in Puget Sound are currently under development.

Great Lakes

Harmful Algal Blooms

Blooms of the blue-green algae Microcystis occurring each year in the Great Lakes can cause impacts to human and ecosystem health, including fish kills and discolored or foul-smelling water. An experimental HAB bulletin has been developed to provide a weekly forecast for Microcystis blooms in western Lake Erie.

Hypoxia

NOAA and its partners are developing methods to determine the extent of hypoxia events in the Great Lakes, target their causes, and forecast the ecological impacts.

Pathogens

Efforts are underway by NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and its partners to develop a water quality forecasting system for use at targeted beaches throughout the Great Lakes. The system improves the ability to forecast water quality conditions that may present a risk to human health.

"Our job is to build an understanding of the Earth, the atmosphere, and the oceans and to transform that understanding into critical environmental intelligence: timely, actionable information, developed from reliable and authoritative science, that gives us foresight about future conditions."
- Dr. Kathy Sullivan, NOAA Administrator

Red tide along Florida's Gulf Coast.
The global average combined land and ocean surface temperature for the month of June 2010 was the warmest on record.

Ecological forecasts protect people. Ecoforecasting efforts supported the University of Maryland with a medical diagnosis of a Vibrio vulificus infection contracted from the Chesapeake Bay during a HAB event.

The global average combined land and ocean surface temperature for the month of June 2010 was the warmest on record.

Ecological forecasts protect the economy. The health consequences of marine-borne pathogens cost our nation about $900 million annually. The ability to forecast toxins allows coastal managers to close beaches and seafood harvesting in a timely manner so that costly illnesses are avoided.

The global average combined land and ocean surface temperature for the month of June 2010 was the warmest on record.

Ecological forecasts protect ecosystems. Responding to marine animal mortality resulting from HAB-related events in Florida and California has enabled NOAA scientists and partners to better understand long-term trends in HAB impacts across seasons, years, and geographical regions. Such information also provides “baseline” toxin values to compare to future HAB events.

Predicting Ecological Changes

The health of our coastal communities, economy, and ecosystems depend upon our understanding of complex and constantly changing conditions. Hazards such as pollution, extreme weather events, and climate variability are daily realities for the growing number of Americans who live in U.S. coastal shoreline counties. At NOAA, we're taking proactive steps to prepare for future conditions to help our nation become more resilient.

What is ecological forecasting?
An ecological forecast predicts changes in ecosystems and ecosystem components in response to an environmental driver such as climate variability, extreme weather conditions, pollution, or habitat change. It also provides information about how people, economies, and communities may be affected. Local authorities and members of the public use these early warnings to make decisions to protect the health and well-being of a particular area.

For example, Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), popularly known as “red tides,” have caused a cumulative economic loss exceeding $1 billion over the last two decades. HABs along the shore can cause illness and death in humans, fish, and marine mammals. HAB forecasts provide information that local authorities can use to decide whether a beach needs to be closed temporarily to protect public health.

In creating NOAA in 1970, President Nixon recognized the need for a holistic, integrated approach to earth science:

”We face immediate and compelling needs for better protection of life and property from natural hazards, and for a better understanding of the total environment--an understanding which will enable us more effectively to monitor and predict its actions...we already have the scientific, technological and administrative resources to make an effective unified approach possible. What we need is to bring them together. Establishment of NOAA would do so.”

NOAA's Role in Ecological Forecasting

How is NOAA uniquely positioned to deliver ecological forecasting?
NOAA has a long history in environmental forecasting. We forecast weather, climate, tides, fishery stocks, and recovery of protected species. We also have exceptional modeling and computing capacities and are at the forefront of development and use of new environmental sensors. A massive amount of NOAA weather, climate, oceanographic, coastal, and biological data supports these efforts.

For more than a decade, NOAA has been developing experimental forecasts in areas such as harmful algal blooms, pathogens, hypoxia, sea level change, wave energy, and ocean acidification. In a few cases, NOAA has transitioned the experimental forecasts into operations. For example, NOAA produces operational Harmful Algal Bloom forecasts for the Gulf of Mexico. These forecasts are based on satellite imagery, models, and field data from federal, state, and local monitoring programs; research vessels; buoys; and autonomous underwater vehicles. Combining this information allows NOAA to alert officials of the location, movement, and impacts of blooms. The forecast system also provides daily public condition reports. Forecasting methods vary based on the species and geographic area.

The Mississippi River watershed and corresponding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hypoxic zones are areas in the ocean of such low oxygen concentration that animal life suffocates and dies. One of the largest hypoxic zones forms in the Gulf of Mexico every spring as a result of nutrient pollution from the Mississippi River.

NOAA’s Ecological Forecasting Services Roadmap:
National Scale, Regional Delivery

How will NOAA improve ecological forecasting?
NOAA’s Ecological Forecasting Roadmap is a plan to deliver coordinated, accurate, and resource-efficient ecological forecast products. This longterm approach will allow us to meet our key mandates tied to protecting life, property, and human health, while maintaining our role as stewards of the environment.

Collaborative, systematic, ecological forecasts will build upon NOAA’s ongoing investments in scientific understanding of ecosystem structure, dynamics, and functioning; advances in observational, modeling, and computational infrastructure; and experience in operational forecasting.

Can a national approach work regionally?
We recognize that what is appropriate for water quality managers in one region may not be appropriate in another. However, nationwide consistency is critical for success. That's why the Roadmap supports a consistent, national protocol for ecological forecasts while allowing the agency to continue to target development and implementation of region-specific forecasts.

Harmful algal bloom forecast for the western coast of Florida.

HAB forecast for the western coast of Florida. HAB forecasts provide information that local authorities can use to decide whether a beach needs to be closed temporarily to protect public health.

Major Focus Areas

Have priority areas been identified?
NOAA has historically developed and delivered ecological forecasts on an ad hoc basis, with various parts of the agency working somewhat independently of each other. While this approach has resulted in isolated success, it has not always offered the sustained outcomes needed for reliable decision making.

The Ecological Forecasting Roadmap addresses this issue by accounting for needs expressed by stakeholders; how mature NOAA’s capacity is in a particular area; and national significance. This analysis resulted in identification of three priorities: harmful algal blooms; hypoxia (sometimes called “dead zones”); and pathogens (organisms that cause disease). The Roadmap offers a more coordinated and systematic approach to ecological forecasts needed by the nation.



People clamming for shellfish along the coast.

Recreational clamming safety depends on timely, accurate assessment of harmful algal blooms.

NOAA’s Customers Play a Key Role

Who are NOAA's customers?
Do you use NOAA producs and services? Then YOU are a NOAA customer! Here are some examples of our key customers: federal agencies • water quality managers at the state, tribal and local level • commercial and recreational fishers • seafood restaurants and markets • coastal tourism officials • public health officials • and of course, the people who live, work and recreate in coastal areas.

What role do NOAA’s customers play?
We rely on customer input in order to develop and prioritize forecasts with limited resources. As part of our Roadmap activities, we plan to continually engage in dialogue with a broad range of customers to:

  • help guide research and development of forecasts,
  • identify appropriate delivery mechanisms,
  • establish requirements of forecast skill, and
  • receive feedback to improve our products and services.

We have gathered input from many of our customers for certain ocean health threats such as HABs and hypoxia. Input from a wide-range of customers will continue to be an integral part of our future efforts.

Beach closure sign stating that the beach is closed due to contamination.

Our nation's beaches provide a wealth of recreational activities for both residents and visitors. Clean sand and water are critical to a healthy swimming experience and the overall coastal tourism industry.

Partnerships are Key to NOAA’s Success

It is essential for NOAA to take full advantage of our network of partners to make the most of available expertise and assets. Successful ecoforecasting depends upon continued close work with federal, state, and local partners to develop a shared vision of roles and responsibilities. This includes building on existing lines of communications and partnerships with other federal agencies; the Coastal States Organization; state coastal, natural resource, environmental, and public health agencies; multi-state entities; and multi-agency task forces. Simultaneously, we need to build upon relevant research and development activities in academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, and industry.