Algae Starting To Bloom

Algal Blooms in Lake Erie, around Monroe, acquired by Sentinel-2 on 3rd August 2017. Data Courtesy of ESA/Copernicus.

Algae have been making the headlines in the last few weeks, which is definitely a rarely used phrase!

Firstly, the Lake Erie freshwater algal bloom has begun in the western end of the lake near Toledo. This is something that is becoming an almost annual event and last year it interrupted the water supply for a few days for around 400,000 residents in the local area.

An algae bloom refers to a high concentration of micro algae, known as phytoplankton, in a body of water. Blooms can grow quickly in nutrient rich waters and potentially have toxic effects. Although a lot of algae is harmless, the toxic varieties can cause rashes, nausea or skin irritation if you were to swim in it, it can also contaminate drinking water and can enter the food chain through shellfish as they filter large quantities of water.

Lake Erie is fourth largest of the great lakes on the US/Canadian border by surface area, measuring around 25,700 square km, although it’s also the shallowest and at 484 cubic km has the smallest water volume. Due to its southern position it is the warmest of the great lakes, something which may be factor in creation of nutrient rich waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produce both an annual forecast and a twice weekly Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin during the bloom season which lasts until late September. The forecast reflects the expected biomass of the bloom, but not its toxicity, and this year’s forecast was 7.5 on a scale to 10, the largest recent blooms in 2011 and 2015 both hit the top of the scale. Interestingly, this year NOAA will start incorporating Sentinel-3 data into the programme.

Western end of Lake Erie acquired by Sentinel-2 on 3rd August 2017. Data

Despite the phytoplankton within algae blooms being only 1,000th of a millimetre in size, the large numbers enable them to be seen from space. The image to the left is a Sentinel-2 image, acquired on the 3rd August, of the western side of the lake where you can see the green swirls of the algal bloom, although there are also interesting aircraft contrails visible in the image. The image at the start of the top of the blog is zoomed in to the city of Monroe and the Detroit River flow into the lake and the algal bloom is more prominent.

Landsat 8 acquired this image of the northwest coast of Norway on the 23rd July 2017,. Image courtesy of NASA/NASA Earth Observatory.

It’s not just Lake Erie where algal blooms have been spotted recently:

  • The Chautauqua Lake and Findley Lake, which are both just south of Lake Erie, have reported algal blooms this month.
  • NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite captured the image on the right, a bloom off the northwest coast of Norway on the 23rd July. It is noted that blooms at this latitude are in part due to the sunlight of long summer days.
  • The MODIS instrument onboard NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired the stunning image below of the Caspian Sea on the 3rd August.

Image of the Caspian Sea, acquired on 3rd August 2017, by MODIS on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Image Courtesy of NASA/NASA Earth Observatory.

Finally as reported by the BBC, an article in Nature this week proposes that it was a takeover by ocean algae 650 million years ago which essentially kick started life on Earth as we know it.

So remember, they may be small, but algae can pack a punch!

Sentinel-2A dips its toe into the water

Detailed image of algal bloom in the Baltic Sea acquired by Sentinel-2A on 7 August 2015. Data courtesy of Copernicus Sentinel data (2015)/ESA.

Detailed image of algal bloom in the Baltic Sea acquired by Sentinel-2A on 7 August 2015. Data courtesy of Copernicus Sentinel data (2015)/ESA.

With spectacular images of an algal bloom in the Baltic Sea, ESA’s Sentinel-2A has announced its arrival to the ocean colour community. As we highlighted an earlier blog, Sentinel-2A was launched in June predominately as a land monitoring mission. However, given it offers higher resolution data than other current marine focussed missions; it was always expected to dip it’s toe into ocean colour. And what a toe it has dipped!

The images show a huge bloom of cyanobacteria in the Baltic Sea, with the blue-green swirls of eddies and currents. The image at the top of the blog shows the detail of the surface floating bloom caught in the currents, and there is a ship making its way through the bloom with its wake producing a straight black line as deeper waters are brought to the surface.

Algal bloom in the Baltic Sea acquired by Sentinel-2A on 7 August 2015. Data courtesy of Copernicus Sentinel data (2015)/ESA.

Algal bloom in the Baltic Sea acquired by Sentinel-2A on 7 August 2015. Data courtesy of Copernicus Sentinel data (2015)/ESA.

To the right is a wider view of the bloom within the Baltic Sea. The images were acquired on the 7th August using the Multispectral Imager, which has 13 spectral bands and the visible, which were used here, have a spatial resolution of 10 m.

The Baltic Sea has long suffered from poor water quality and in 1974 it became the first entire sea to be subject to measures to prevent pollution, with the signing of the Helsinki Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area. Originally signed by the Baltic coastal countries, a revised version was signed by the majority of European countries in 1992. This convention came into force into force on the 17th January 2000 and is overseen by the Helsinki Commission – Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission – also known as HELCOM. The convention aims to protect the Baltic Sea area from harmful substances from land based sources, ships, incineration, dumping and from the exploitation of the seabed.

Despite the international agreements, the ecosystems of the Baltic Sea are still threatened by overfishing, marine and chemical pollution. However, the twin threats that cause the area to suffer from algal blooms are warm temperatures and excessive levels of nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen. This not only contributes towards the algal blooms, but the Baltic Sea is also home to seven of the world’s ten largest marine dead zones due to the low levels of oxygen in the water, which prevent marine life from thriving.

These images certainly whet the appetite of marine remote sensors, who also have Sentinel-3 to look forward to later this year. That mission will focus on sea-surface topography, sea surface temperature and ocean colour, and is due to the launched in the last few months of 2015. It’s an exciting time to be monitoring and researching the world’s oceans!