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Sallie A. Keith
Glenn Research Center, Cleveland

Jana Goldman
August 28, 2007
RELEASE : 07-032
NASA and NOAA Partner to Monitor Algae in Great Lakes
Cleveland - Researchers at NASA's Glenn Research Center have teamed up with the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), Ann Arbor, Mich., to monitor harmful algae in the western basin of Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron. Over the next several weeks, researchers from Glenn and GLERL will use a remote-sensing system mounted on a Lear jet to examine algae blooms.

A harmful algae bloom can be a dynamic event. It can form, spread and then disappear within a 4 to 8 week time period in late summer. It is a concern for human health, fish and wildlife because they commonly contain Microcystis, a blue-green algae that can contain the toxin, microcystin. In the Great Lakes, one of the most common forms of microcystin is Microcystin-LR, which also happens to be one of the most toxic.

Algae blooms in Lake Erie are monitored and recorded using a suite of optical instruments. The suite of instruments includes a hyper-spectral imager designed and built by Glenn researchers and miniature spectrometers originally designed by Glenn to characterize dust on Mars.

A hyper-spectral imager is a high resolution scientific camera that can capture a large number of images from across the light spectrum with very fine resolution. A spectrometer is an instrument used to measure the intensity of light at different wavelengths. Each substance in the lake has a different spectroscopic signature, which like a finger print, can be used as an identifier. By improving the capability to remotely identify these signatures, researchers can improve their ability to predict the formation of a bloom and its impact on water quality.

"Our partnership with NOAA allows us to utilize and test instruments that we might need for future space exploration projects," said John Lekki, an optical systems research engineer at Glenn. "It is always gratifying when our work helps make things better here on Earth especially in our own back yard."

Satellite imagery has been used to detect and map potentially harmful algae but clear skies cannot be guaranteed in every pass over the monitored area. In some cases it could be days before a harmful algae bloom is identified. Airborne measurements complement satellite monitoring by allowing researchers to take to the skies quickly even when high cloud cover obscures satellite observation.

"Because of the toxicity there is a need for the blooms to be quickly detected and to be continually monitored so that early warning can be issued to municipal water intakes, lakeshore beaches and other stakeholders," said George Leshkevich, a physical scientist at GLERL.

The first phase of testing ended in the fall of 2006, with analysis of the data continuing through September of 2007.

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