Algae

Sustainable Biofuel to Combat Climate Change

I’m a supporter of on-the-ground work in academia and how student research programs across the United States are helping to solve our country’s environmental problems, often with assistance from the federal government.

That’s why I was delighted to visit with Dr. Sandeep Kumar and his team of graduate and undergraduate students at Old Dominion University Research Foundation in Norfolk, Virginia.  My visit was timely – EPA had just awarded the team a P3 grant for $15,000.

Garvin Old Dominion

EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin with Dr. Sandeep Kumar’s research team at Old Dominion University laboratory.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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The Algae “Strike Back”: Post Dam Removal Benthic Surveys at the Elwha River Mouth

By Sean Sheldrake, Steve Rubin, and Rob Pedersen

EPA science diver photographs kelp samples on board boat.

EPA diver Rob Pedersen photographs samples.

Some of you may have followed our previous blog posts about EPA’s scientific diving program, including 2011 and 2012 reports from the Elwha River mouth in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The field site is downstream from the largest dam removal and restoration project to date, a large scale effort to restore wild salmon habitat and other aspects of the natural ecosystem. (For a great overview of the project, check out the webinar series posted by Olympic National Park.)

In this 2013 installment, we share some interesting findings about our benthic survey on how the dam removal is affecting things at the mouth of the river.

This survey involves counting 72 species of invertebrates and 13 species of algae—all of which are experiencing changes, some dramatic, as a result of the largest dam removal and restoration project to date: an experiment of grand scale for Elwha River mouth seafloor residents!  The survey is led by the U.S. Geologic Survey, and the team includes Washington Sea Grant, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and EPA divers.

Stationary light sensor placed near the Elwha River mouth.

Stationary light sensor placed near the Elwha River mouth.

Although divers reported seeing fewer algae, the scientists are still crunching the numbers. Early indications suggest a decrease in algae abundance, including the famed, forest-forming “bull kelp” since the removal of the dam. These changes may be due to decreased light levels, a loss of suitable substrate (a growing surface like a rock of some size, or even as small as gravel), or a combination of the two.  The team of divers used light sensors at many stations to help to document whether changes in light penetration were occurring at the dive sites to supplement quantitative data about the changes in the seafloor substrate.

In addition, it seems that tubeworms are on the increase in some areas.

This year, early reports indicate a late growing season for algae, perhaps due to the “silt cloud” hanging over areas near the river mouth. A few surprises may be in the works, too, such as the appearance of the rare kelp species pictured below, a sample the team of scientific divers could not immediately identify underwater—a discovery suggesting that as algae are faced with reduced light levels, a species or two not found during previous surveys might be trying to join the party.

Diver holds kelp sample underwater.

Mystery kelp.

Early suspicions from USGS and other experts narrowed down the mystery alga to either Laminaria ephemera or Laminaria yezoensis, and follow up examination confirmed it to be Laminaria ephemera. The unfolding story was covered in the local Peninsula Daily News.

To answer a few questions you might be wondering about all this:

  • Why does algae matter?
    Answer: Well it’s quite a nursery for young marine life and a grocery store for young and old that live in the sea.  It’s not unusual to see gray whales and their young grazing in the ‘kelp forest.’ Changes for shellfish are also of great importance to local fisheries.  The river is connected to the ocean in so many ways—and the silt keeps coming!
  • What other changes are there?
    Answer: The ongoing study will show changes for nearly 100 species of algae and invertebrates, in addition to fish, for the largest dam removal effort in North America to date.

For more information on the USGS-led study, see: http://www.usgs.gov/elwha, http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2011/5120/seaLife/.  For a full set of 2013 photographs, see: Elwha 2013.

Read more about the latest in EPA scientific diving at facebook.com/EPADivers.

About the AuthorsSean Sheldrake is part of the Seattle EPA Dive unit and is also a project manager working on the Portland Harbor cleanup in Oregon.  Sean Sheldrake serves on the EPA diving safety board, responsible for setting EPA diving policy requirements, where Rob Pedersen has served for many years.  In addition, they both work to share contaminated water diving expertise with first responders and others.  Steve Rubin is an aquatic biologist specializing in algal species with the USGS and a lead scientist on the survey.

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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Seeing Green (and Predicting It)

By Dustin Renwick

Thick mat of green algae at the shore of a lakeWhen you live near a coast, summer means beaches. A relaxing inland getaway often involves the cool waters of a lake.

Except when the shoreline turns green.

Sometimes a mat of algae clogs fishing lines. Other times, lake foam makes the swimming area appear as if someone poured in a few St. Patrick’s Day green beers.

Those algae serve a natural function in the ecosystem. Yet an icky, slimy scene can ruin plans for a day on the water when conditions – generally warm, stagnant water rich in excess nitrogen, phosphorus,or other nutrient pollution – sparks rapid growth.

Ross Lunetta, EPA research physical scientist, leads a team of research and application scientists who proposed a Pathfinder Innovation Project to validate a new algorithm that uses satellite data for predicting algal blooms in freshwater systems.

Specifically, the team’s project targets cyanobacteria, known to make humans and animals sick with symptoms such as respiratory distress and skin rashes. On the basis of algae cell counts, more than a quarter of lakes nationwide have enough cyanobacteria for moderate to high risk according to the most recent National Lakes Assessment Report in 2009.

Tallying the density of cyanobacteria cells in a water body can provide an estimate of potential exposure risk. But sampling more than a handful of the nation’s lakes can be costly and slow. Plus, current satellite data and its analysis fall short.

Existing field measurement programs were not designed to provide data that researchers can readily use to calibrate and validate satellite-based observations. And satellites can’t discriminate between the sizes or the many species of cyanobacteria, some of which don’t produce toxins.

“It’s not necessarily the same species in Maine as it is in Florida,” Lunetta said. “These things can be very different in size.”

Not knowing the cell volume, which is species specific, makes calculations of blooms cell counts, impacts, and risks a challenge.

The team is working with TopCoder, an online community to bring in outside expertise and innovation through competitions and challenges and expand the search for solutions.

TopCoder represents nearly a half million software developers and algorithm specialists. The company’s process breaks large challenges into small chunks that can be coded, developed, or designed individually. Then TopCoder stacks all the pieces back together into a finished solution.

Imagine a neighborhood full of tinkerers, parts collectors and coding whiz-kids who could gather at your garage to diagnose and fix your car when the “check engine light” flashed. Each person could solve a problem within his or her specialty, and the cohesive result benefits from these specific skills.

The team’s predictive algorithm will take a few more months to design and even longer to validate, but the potential benefits are clear. Water forecasts and public health officials could alert anyone who might consider a day at the lake, and researchers could focus their efforts.

“If you have limited resources, and you can only collect five samples but you have 50 lakes,” Lunetta said, “you can pick the ones the model tells you will most likely become a problem.”

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA 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.

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Communication Challenges 1: Harmful Algal Blooms

By Jessica Werber

At EPA, there is a lot of discussion about connecting the dots. How do you help people go from A to B to a desired conclusion? When it comes to communicating the importance of harmful algal blooms, helping the public make connections between the health of their water bodies and their own health is a formidable challenge.

Algal blooms are confusing because they are simply the result of “too much of a good thing.” A little bit of algae is actually good for a water body, but too much becomes harmful.

Let’s say a landowner applies excess fertilizer on his or her land, or applies it at the wrong time. Then it rains and nitrogen in the fertilizer trickles into a nearby stream. That stream also receives nitrogen from stormwater, wastewater, and other sources like pet waste, and it becomes saturated. Algae feeding on the nitrogen proliferate, blocking the sunlight, depleting oxygen in the water, causing bacteria and…Well, the visual result is green goop, or surface scum on the water, which is pretty common in many states around America:

After the algal bloom subsides, the waterbody may still be overloaded with nitrogen. Certain types of algae, such as blue-green algae, create toxins that can make people and animals sick. When popular lakes and ponds are covered with scum, the local economy loses out because tourists will be unable to play or fish in the water.

The reality is that most people don’t think about water pollution in their everyday lives. Do I think that people care about their water? Yes, but they do so in different ways. Some care because they place an inherent value in the natural world. Others care because they have a vested interest; their child or pet is getting sick or their business is affected by the pollution. To successfully explain why harmful algal blooms are so detrimental, it is increasingly important for EPA to investigate the motivations behind why certain people care, to adapt our messaging and outreach efforts accordingly, and to clearly connect the dots in our own minds before we reach out to the public.

EPA’s new nutrient pollution website contains local stories about nutrient pollution and suggested actions you can take. So tell me…why do you care about harmful algal blooms and what can you do to make a difference?

About the author: Jessica Werber is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education Participant in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. She is also a licensed attorney. This post does not represent the views of the EPA or Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.

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.

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Algae: A Slimy Solution to Improving Baltimore Harbor’s Water Quality

By Nancy Grundahl

Algae are in the spotlight and – this time – for all the right reasons.  That slimy greenish stuff you sometimes see in lakes and at the beach is now being used in a pilot project to see if it can help clean up the water in the Baltimore Harbor.  Algae blooms are normally in the news as the result of excess nutrients that rob water of oxygen.  But this controlled growth of algae is part of an initiative that aims to make the Inner Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020.

How does it work?  Algae that are naturally in the harbor flows over a mesh screen. There it attaches and grows, removing nutrients and carbon from the water in the process.  Every week, the algae are harvested and then can be used as a fertilizer or converted into fuel.

This innovative pilot is part of Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Plan to make the harbor cleaner and greener.  And, if it works, plans are to expand the algal pad to at least an acre, filtering millions of gallons of water each day.  If you want to see what a smaller scale version of an algal turf scrubber looks like, view this lively video:

[youtube width=”640″ height=”480″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5w4R0sNPsc[/youtube]

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the nation’s law for protecting our most irreplaceable resource.  Throughout the year, EPA will be highlighting different aspects of the history and successes of the Clean Water Act in reducing pollution in the past 40 years.  The month of June focused on Fishable Waters.

About the author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created. Nancy likes to garden and during the growing season brings flowers into the office. Nancy also writes for the EPA “It’s Our Environment” 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.

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