Idaho scientists harness satellites to detect algal blooms; with more work, tool could be used across the region
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are a serious problem for bodies of water across the West. Now researchers in Idaho are refining a tool that uses satellites to detect possible blooms – one that could eventually be used across the region and beyond.
HABs are most commonly caused by aquatic, photosynthetic cyanobacteria, which can release cyanotoxins. They can irritate the skin and eyes, or if ingested, cause stomach pain and other symptoms in people and animals. Monitoring for them can be time- and resource-intensive.
Tyler King, a research hydrologist at the US Geological Survey’s Idaho Water Center, is part of a team that developed a tool that uses satellites to detect high concentrations of chlorophyll, which can indicate a harmful algal bloom.
“It's very expensive to do a comprehensive monitoring program,” King said. “You can use this satellite imagery to help prioritize, you know, ‘where in the water body should I go?’”
The tool is currently calibrated for bodies of water in Idaho. But King says that with on-the-ground observations and validation data, it “could be applied essentially globally.”
He and others are already working with other colleagues across the West interested in using the tool elsewhere.
“Harmful algal blooms don't follow state boundaries,” he said.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.