NOAA

Tracking Blooms from the Sky

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Image of a map created with the new app.

Water quality managers can drop location pins in their water bodies of interest and the pins change colors depending on user settings.

With help from partners, EPA is going above and beyond the agency’s traditional methods of monitoring harmful algal blooms in water. EPA has joined NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to use satellite data to monitor algal blooms and develop an early warning indicator system for toxic and nuisance blooms.

Algal blooms have caused extensive problems in lakes worldwide. We saw this in August, 2014 when half a million people living in and around Toledo, Ohio were issued a water advisory alerting them to avoid all contact with Toledo drinking water after a harmful algal bloom of cyanobateria in Lake Erie had produced unsafe levels of the toxin microcystin.

Blooms like these are becoming a more frequent occurrence and are having greater impacts than ever before. The estimated annual cost of U.S. freshwater degraded by harmful algal blooms is $64 million in additional drinking water treatment, loss of recreational water usage, and decline in waterfront real estate values.

The new multi-agency effort will build on previous NASA ocean satellite sensor technologies created to study the global ocean’s microscopic algal communities. EPA researchers will provide the science that links the current and historical satellite data on cyanobacteria algal blooms provided by NASA, NOAA, and USGS to monitor changes in the environment, assess economic impacts, and protect human health.

The first step in the five-year project will be creating a reliable, standard method for identifying cyanobacteria blooms in U.S. freshwater lakes and reservoirs using ocean color satellite data. NOAA and NASA have lead the way in using oceanic satellite data for monitoring and forecasting harmful algal blooms and EPA is integrating this data into the decision-making process.

Researchers will also conduct a large-scale investigation of potential causes of harmful algal blooms in U.S. freshwater systems. Blooms in lakes and estuaries result from aquatic plants receiving a combination of excess nutrients, perhaps from river runoff, and other environmental conditions such as temperature and light. Various land uses, such as urbanization or modernized agricultural practices, influence the amount of sediment and nutrients delivered in watersheds, which can influence cyanobacterial growth.

This innovative use of satellite data to monitor and report blooms throughout a region or state will help with management of events and significantly reduce risk to the public. Ultimately, this project will reduce the amount of resources needed to protect human health and the environment.

About the Author: Science writer and student contractor Kacey Fitzpatrick is a frequent contributor to It All Starts with Science.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Monitoring Harmful Algal Blooms? There’s an App for That!

By Annie Zwerneman

Algal bloom covers a lake.

Algal bloom covers a lake.

I was recently on my favorite hiking trail, which passes by a beautiful lake. But this time hiking past it, I noticed a strange, dark scum creeping along the shoreline of the water. I learned later that this scum was actually an algal bloom: a population of algae increasing quickly over a short period of time.

Some algal blooms are merely an eyesore, but others fall into a more serious category called “harmful algal blooms” (HABs): algae and cyanobacteria (formerly known as blue-green algae) that remove oxygen from the water, crowding their way along the surface and producing toxins that are harmful to animals. The toxins that HABs produce can affect peoples’ health, too.

EPA has been working to monitor HABs, including taking water samples to see where and how algal blooms may affect you. Unfortunately, taking such water samples is time-intensive, so EPA has been working alongside scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to find new ways to monitor the quality of inland water bodies, such as lakes and reservoirs. EPA hopes to monitor estuaries and coastal waters in the future as well.

A new Android app is being developed that displays imagery of cyanobacterial cell counts in freshwater systems, which can indicate the presence of HABs. Expected to be in beta testing this fall, the app will provide information necessary for locating and monitoring HABs. It’s primarily aimed toward stakeholders like health departments and municipalities (such as water treatment plants).

The app will display data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite. In the near future, EPA researchers hope to incorporate the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-3 and potentially the Landsat-8 satellite as well. They will work with their NOAA, USGS, and NASA partners to pull all these capabilities together once the app is ready for public use.

The way the app will work is a bit like the weather station. At the beginning of each week, the cell count will be updated based on the satellite information gathered the previous week. There may even be a prediction of the cell count for the upcoming week available. For example, you can get a cell count in Lake Erie for the current week, and then get a prediction of what the cell count may be next week.

Thanks to the collaborative effort of multiple federal agencies, those looking for information about freshwater quality and HABs won’t have to look far: there will be an app for that!

About the Author: Annie Zwerneman is a 2014 summer intern working for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Organizing the Ocean

coastal scene

The Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard is the first such system for marine ecosystems.

By Marguerite Huber

Do you like things alphabetized? In chronological order? Color coded? If so, you probably love organization. You probably have a place and category for every aspect of your life.

Well researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NatureServe, the U.S. Geological Survey, and EPA have taken organization to the next level. For more than a decade they have been working to organize the first classification standard for describing coastal and marine ecosystems.

This classification standard, called the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), offers a simple framework and common terminology for describing ecosystems—from coastal estuaries all the way down to the depths of the ocean. It provides a consistent way to collect, organize, analyze, report, and share coastal marine ecological data, which is especially useful for coastal resource managers and planners, engineers, and researchers from government, academia, and industry. The Federal Geographic Data Committee has already adopted CMECS as the national standard.

Organization at its finest, CMECS is basically a structure of classification, with the helpful addition of an extensive dictionary of terms and definitions that describe ecological features for the geological, physical, biological, and chemical components of the environment.

Using CMECS, you first classify the ecosystem into two settings, which can be used together or separately. The Biogeographic Setting covers ecoregions defined by climate, geology, and evolutionary history. The second, Aquatic Setting, divides the watery territory into oceans, estuaries and lakes, deep and shallow waters, and submerged and intertidal environments.

For both of these settings, there are four components that describe different aspects of the ecosystem, which are outlined in CMECS’s Catalog of Units. The water column component describes characteristics of, you guessed it, the water column, including water temperature, salinity, and more. The geoform component includes characteristics of the coast or seafloor’s landscape. The substrate component characterizes the non-living materials that form the seafloor (like sand) or that provide a surface for biota (like a buoy that has mussels growing on it). And finally, the biotic component classifies the living organisms in the ecosystem.

A benefit of CMECS’s structure of settings and components is that users can apply CMECS to best suit their needs.  It can be used for detailed descriptions of small areas for experimental work, for mapping the characteristics of an entire regional ecosystem, and for everything in between.  People reading scientific papers, interpreting maps, or analyzing large data sets can have clear and easily available definitions to understand the work and to compare results.

Additionally, it will be much easier to share data because CMECS allows everyone to use the same units and the same terminology. It is much easier to share and compare data when you’re using the same definitions and the same units!

Overall, with the use and application of CMECS, we will be able to improve our knowledge of marine ecosystems, while satisfying organizers everywhere.

About the authorMarguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Research Partnership Advancing the Science of Organic Aerosols

By Sherri Hunt

Air monitoring research site with sensors and towers

Air monitoring research site with sensors and towers

Why is there so much interest in weather forecasts, maps, smoke, planes, balloons, towers, filters, instruments, cities, and trees in Alabama this summer? At this very moment, more than 100 scientists are making measurements at multiple locations in the Southeastern U.S. to investigate a number of challenging research questions related to organic aerosols—small particles suspended in the atmosphere. These particles contribute to concentrations of particulate matter (PM), which can influence both climate and people’s health.

The Southeastern U.S. is an ideal location to study the formation and physical properties of organic aerosol since it is hot, sunny, forested, and impacted by pollution from cities. In a coordinated research effort, scientists have converged at the primary surface site in Brent, AL. They are working there throughout June and July 2013 as part of the Southern Oxidant and Aerosol Study (SOAS) and other related field campaigns, all coordinated under the Southern Atmosphere Study (SAS). Additional measurements are being made on the ground at sites in Research Triangle Park, NC, the Duke Forest, NC, and Look Rock, TN.

By using research towers, balloons, and several aircraft flying above the ground sites, scientists are taking measurements at multiple heights, making this the most detailed characterization of the southeastern atmosphere since the 1990s.

The planning for this campaign began more than two years ago as the scientific community identified the need for a rich data set in order to address pressing research questions related to how organic aerosol is formed and its impact on regional climate.  Improving the understanding of these physical and chemical properties will enable the development of more accurate models of air pollution and climate, which in turn will make more effective plans to improve air quality possible. Such scientific discoveries may enable us to better understand the atmosphere across the country and ultimately determine ways to enable more people to breathe cleaner air. They will also allow scientists to understand, anticipate, and prepare for potential future climate changes.

In order to accomplish a study of this magnitude, EPA is working together with the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others.

EPA is also funding 13 research institutions to participate through the Agency’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant program. The STAR funded researchers will leverage the measurements and equipment provided by the other partners and conduct analyses of the rich data sets collected. Funded projects include work investigating each part of the organic aerosol system, from measuring emissions and formation products, to cloud-aerosol interactions, to climate impacts of aerosols.

In addition to field measurements, laboratory experiments and modeling studies are also planned that include EPA researchers. As part of EPA’s involvement, Agency scientists are using a novel tracer method that will allow them to differentiate between man-made and natural sources of organic aerosols. The data and results will help improve our understanding of organic aerosol formation and will also be shared with other researchers.

Public open houses at the Alabama and Tennessee sites on June 19 and 21, 2013 will allow the surrounding communities an opportunity to see the state-of-the-art measurement instruments and meet researchers. Interested?  If you are in the area, please consider coming by to see what all the interest is about.

About the Author

EPA researcher Dr. Sherri Hunt

EPA researcher Dr. Sherri Hunt

Sherri Hunt, Ph.D. is the Assistant Center Director for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program. Read more about Sherri and her work on her “EPA Science Matters” interview: Meet EPA Scientist Sherri Hunt, Ph.D.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Atlantic Sturgeon Enter Endangered Species Protection Program

By Kaitlyn Bendik

Have you ever heard of a fish called the Atlantic Sturgeon? I hadn’t until recently. When I sought out to learn about the different endangered species in the District of Columbia, I learned that this fish can grow to an enormous 14 feet long and weigh up to 800 pounds, but it is also endangered. Who knew such aquatic behemoths lived in rivers and estuaries in the Mid Atlantic Region?

I also learned that the Atlantic sturgeon is an anadromous fish species that can live up to 60 years.  It dwarfs the other two sturgeon species found in eastern North America, and is a benthic or bottom feeder.

Have you ever heard of a fish called the Atlantic Sturgeon?  I hadn’t until recently.  When I googled it, I learned that it can grow to an enormous 18 feet long and weigh over 800 pounds, but is also endangered.  Who knew such aquatic behemoths lived in rivers and estuaries in the Mid Atlantic Region!
The Atlantic sturgeon is an anadromous fish species that can live up to 60 years, and dwarfs the other two sturgeon species found in eastern North America.  They are also benthic or bottom feeders.

Recently, the Atlantic Sturgeon was added to the Endangered Species List in the Chesapeake Bay and four other “distinct population segments.”

So how does a species get listed?  A concerned citizen like you may petition the United States Secretary of the Interior to add a species, which begins a process of deciding whether there’s enough information to prove that a species needs listing.  Likewise, an organization such as the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service engages in a candidate species process, where a scientific study is conducted to gather data.  When the study concludes a species needs listing, it publishes its findings in the Federal Register for public comment.  Once that process is complete, the species can get its spot on list.

Why is the Atlantic sturgeon on the list?  Historically, this fish was a part of commercial fisheries in the US.  But due to dwindling numbers, in 1998, a harvest moratorium was put on the Atlantic sturgeon.  Despite that action, sturgeon populations are still threatened today.  They get caught inadvertently by fishermen, and in estuaries and rivers, they face habitat degradation and loss due to human activities like dredging, dams, water withdrawals, and development, as well as being hit by ships.

The Atlantic sturgeon species numbers in the Chesapeake Bay have dropped substantially, from about 20,000 breeding females in 1890 throughout the Bay and its tributaries, to less than 300 breeding females that are found in only the James River.  But a comeback is hopefully soon to come with the actions taken to build back its population.

Keeping our water clean will help keep the Atlantic sturgeon around forever. Visit the Chesapeake Bay Program and the Delaware River Basin Commission website for tips on what you can do to help protect the bays and the endangered species that call them home.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Science Wednesday: Breathing New Life into Air Quality Forecasting in Towns Big and Small

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

I’m from a small town in Colorado. Not much industry, not many people. It was great growing up with clean air, clear streams, corn fields, cows, and wide open skies.

Now I work at one of EPA’s greatest facilities with scientists who specialize in understanding air pollution exposure. Because of this, more than ever, I pay attention to air quality.

EPA’s commitment to clean air has resulted in many excellent modeling and analysis tools that can warn people about unhealthy air quality — including “Ozone Action Day” alerts. Some people get these warnings from newspapers or their local weather forecaster, or from AirNow — a web-based clearinghouse that offers daily air quality index forecasts for approximately 300 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas. The AirNow database was developed in 1998 by EPA, NOAA, Environment Canada, and the U.S. National Park Service along with state, local and tribal air agencies.

Growing up, the same person who presented the local weather forecast on the evening news also served as the agricultural reporter. She did her best with the available information, but was clearly more skilled in reporting on cows and corn than the weather.

But I’ve wondered — do small-town citizens routinely get accurate information about air quality from their local weather forecasters? Not sure.

But they could.

It’s available through the National Air Quality Forecast Guidance, a tool developed by EPA and NOAA scientists that generates air quality forecasts — for the entire country.

SWMAPEPA researcher Brian Eder, and colleagues recently evaluated the guidance to see if it was — or wasn’t — providing local ozone forecasts every bit as accurate as those provided by AirNow. The results: the guidance delivers!

Eder’s paper, “Using National Air Quality Forecast Guidance to develop local air quality index forecasts,” in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, explains how people who aren’t trained air quality forecasters can use the guidance to generate localized information that can help people make smarter health decisions regarding outdoor activities on high ozone days.

The economy is such that hiring a trained air quality forecaster probably isn’t on my town’s list of priorities. Nonetheless, I hope towns big and small will discover, and use the guidance to better serve their citizens and protect public health.

About the author: Robin Baily is a writer/editor at EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.