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Modeling Cyanobacteria Ecology to Keep Harmful Algal Blooms at Bay

2014 June 26

By: Betty Kreakie, Jeff Hollister, and Bryan Milstead

Sign on beach warning of harmful algal bloom

U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Dr. Jennifer L. Graham

Despite a lengthy history of research on cyanobacteria, many important questions about this diverse group of aquatic, photosynthetic “blue-green algae” remain unanswered.  For example, how can we more accurately predict cyanobacteria blooms in freshwater systems?  Which lakes have elevated risks for such blooms?  And what characteristics mark areas with high risks for cyanobacteria blooms?

These are important questions, and our ecological modeling work is moving us closer to finding some answers.

The gold standard for understanding cyanobacteria in lakes is direct measurements of certain water quality variables, such as levels of nutrients, chlorophyll a, and pigments.  This of course requires the ability to take on site (“in situ”) samples, something that is not possible to do for every lake in the country.  Our modeling work is focused on predicting cyanobacterial bloom risk for lakes that have not been directly sampled.

We are using remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) data to model bloom risk for all lakes in the continental United States.  The work is also starting to shed light on some of the landscape factors that may contribute to elevated predicted bloom risk.  For example, we know that different regions have different predictive risk.   We are also learning about how lake depth and volume, as well as the surrounding land use impact cyanobacteria abundance.

In addition to our national modeling efforts, we are collaborating with others on smaller scale and more focused studies at regional and local scales.  First, we are partnering with other EPA researchers to develop time-series models using data gathered frequently and over a long time by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.  By using these data, we expect to tease apart information about annual timing and the intensity of blooms.  We can also explore aspects of seasonal variability and frequency. Lastly, we are starting to explore ways to use approximately 25 years of data collected by Rhode Island citizen science as part of the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program.  We hope to mine these data and uncover indicators of harmful algal bloom events.

With all this work, we and our partners are adding new chapters to the long history of cyanobacteria research in ways we hope will help communities better predict, reduce, and respond to harmful blooms.

About the Authors: EPA ecologists Betty Kreakie, Jeff Hollister, and Bryan Milstead are looking for ways to decrease the negative impacts of cyanobacteria and harmful algal blooms on human health and the environment.

NOTE: Join Betty Kreakie, Jeff Hollister, and Bryan Milstead for a Twitter chat today (June 26) at 2:00pm (eastern time zone) using the hashtag #greenwater. Please follow us @EPAresearch.

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

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Sandy Rice permalink
    June 26, 2014

    Is the EPA exploring which/how industrial chemicals may be affecting the frequency/intensity of harmful algal blooms?

  2. Betty Kreakie permalink
    June 26, 2014

    We are not- our work focuses mainly on nutrients. However, this would be a very interesting research question.

  3. Alex Esche permalink
    July 7, 2014

    FROM alex esche, us army corps of engineers hopeful
    Cyanobacteria are causing harmful algal blooms. Other bacteria can
    eat Cyanobacteria. My bacterium can eat Cyanobacteria.
    My bacterium is a Clostridium Ljungdahli. I do not have it (as far as i know)
    but it grows in a closed vessel easily. It can eat gas.
    It lives in complete waters but needs minerals. It also requires
    mostly acids, but some base for control. Carbonate is used as the base.
    Glass vessels are usually used. Glass is a luxury that might be producable
    (by mineral). The bacteria eat sugar. Animals have never been used.
    Plants have not been tried either. Hooray! It is a proposition! You have to be a team! A plant root might eat the bacteria or the algal bloom.
    This proposition is possible at a university! I have two recommendations.

  4. timothy harding permalink
    February 21, 2015

    The rampant diversity of a water collection ventricle, as a storm water intercept, with surviving wildlife and proper flow is likely only stagnant when malfunctioning. The wilderness areas, though, with a likely backwash and overflow into non-protected areas is of major concern… with blooms of various aspects and local natural growth patterns. Can we have the plans pushed ahead for the isolation and study of areas, also then protecting wild species that feed and thrive on such augmented blooms [and find the food value of cyano-type alga indispensable] ?

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