Since 2006, recurrent HABs have left an eerie pall over parts of the shallowest Great Lake.
The western shores of Lake Erie have long been a longed-for destination of Ohio residents and others from nearby states. For many, summer would not be complete without time spent fishing, boating, or kayaking at Huntington Beach, Headlands State Park, or the ever popular Put-in-Bay. The annual economic value of Lake Erie tourism is estimated at $10 billion, and that’s before considering the large commercial fishery that thrives there, too.
Since 2006, however, an eerie pall of the harmful algal bloom (HAB) variety has settled over this Midwest summer playground, causing the once clear waters of the shallowest Great Lake to smell and taste noxious in some places and even to resemble pea soup in others. The problem is caused by recurrent overgrowths of the blue-green alga Microcystis – actually a type of bacteria, known as cyanobacteria – that can produce toxins and harm fish, people, and the environment.
The good news is that NOAA provides weekly forecasts of HAB conditions for Lake Erie during the bloom season, which lasts from June through October. The forecasts advise water utilities, anglers, and others about the presence of a HAB or whether it can be anticipated that one will form.
NOAA scientist Rick Stumpf explains that data for the forecasts come from an instrument called a Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer, or MODIS, carried aboard a NASA environmental observation satellite called Aqua.
"We analyze this data, which reveals subtle changes in the lake's surface color," he says. "We also developed a sophisticated computer model that predicts conditions such as winds, temperature, and currents on the lake's surface. All of these factors influence whether a bloom will grow or shrink, as well as where it will drift."
NOAA then worked with regional water treatment plant operators to create a user-friendly, near-real-time forecast that helps the utilities know when it’s necessary to boost their carbon filtration systems. This saves the utilities tons of money because it takes tons of additional activated charcoal to produce potable water during a HAB event.
A recent letter to NOAA from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency states, for example, that “During an algal bloom, additional activated carbon demand can cost the city of Toledo up to $3,000 per day.”
Local anglers also find the forecasts invaluable when planning the many fishing tournaments that draw thousands of fierce competitors each year. After all, you’re unlikely to hook a contender in pea soup.