Tick Tick Bloom: Harmful Algal Bloom Detection Challenge

Harmful algal blooms occur all around the world, and can harm people, their pets, and marine life. Use satellite imagery to detect dangerous concentrations of cyanobacteria, and help protect public health! #climate

$30,000 in prizes
feb 2023
1,377 joined

About the project

Inland water bodies provide a variety of critical services for both human and aquatic life, including drinking water, recreational and economic opportunities, and marine habitats. A significant challenge water quality managers face is the formation of harmful algal blooms, which can harm human health, threaten other mammals like pets, and damage aquatic ecosystems. In 2017, the EPA found cyanobacteria at some concentration in 39% of lakes it sampled across the country.

An algal bloom in Lake St. Clair near Detroit, MI, captured by NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite mission. Appears as visible bright green splotches in the lake near the city of Detroit.

An algal bloom in Lake St. Clair near Detroit, MI, captured by NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite mission.
Image source: NASA Landsat Image Gallery

Cyanobacteria are microscopic algae that can multiply very quickly in warm, nutrient-rich environments, often creating visible blue or green blooms. These blooms can block sunlight from reaching the rest of the aquatic ecosystem beneath the surface, and take away oxygen and nutrients from other organisms. Cyanobacteria can produce toxins that are poisonous to humans, pets, and livestock. The effect of climate change on marine environments likely makes harmful algal blooms form more often.

Manual water sampling, or “in situ” sampling, is generally used to monitor cyanobacteria in inland water bodies. In situ sampling is accurate, but time intensive and difficult to perform continuously. Public health managers also rely on the public to notice and report blooms. In larger water bodies like oceans, there are established methods for using satellite data to more rapidly detect and measure cyanobacteria. However, blooms are smaller, form more rapidly, and move more dynamically in smaller water bodies like reservoirs, which makes satellite detection difficult.

Fun fact — cyanobacteria are also some of the oldest known life on our planet! The stromatolite fossil below is roughly 3.4 billion years old. Its visible strips were formed by layers of cyanobacteria accumulating over time, just like formations we see in water bodies today.

3.4-billion-year-old stromatolite fossil with stripes caused by accumulating cyanobacteria

3.4-billion-year-old stromatolite fossil with cyanobacteria.
Image source: National History Museum of Los Angeles

About the project team

This competition was created on behalf of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The NASA Applied Sciences Health and Air Quality Program provides policymakers with Earth observations to enhance decision-making about public health, with a special focus on environmental health and infectious diseases. The Health and Air Quality Program provides managers and policymakers with Earth observations that inform decisions about air quality standards, public policies and government regulations for economic and human welfare.

The NASA Applied Sciences Prizes and Challenges Program crowdsources ideas, technologies, scientific advances, and other “solutions” from people around the world through incentivized competitions called prizes and challenges. By opening NASA's missions and questions, these prizes multiply the number of people sharing interdisciplinary knowledge and collaborating to tackle challenges together – all increasing the likelihood of generating practical and effective solutions to Earth’s toughest problems.

The data used in the competition was provided by the following organizations:

  • Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
  • Arizona Department of Environmental Quality
  • Bureau of Water Kansas Department of Health and Environment
  • California Environmental Data Exchange Network
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Connecticut State Department of Public Health
  • Delaware National Resources and the University of Delaware's Citizen Monitoring Program
  • EPA Central Data Exchange
  • EPA National Aquatic Research Survey
  • EPA Ohio
  • EPA Water Quality Data Portal
  • Indiana State Department of Health
  • Iowa Department of Natural Resources
  • Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality
  • Maine Bureau of Water Quality - Division of Environmental Assessment
  • N.C. Division of Water Resources N.C. Department of Environmental Quality
  • New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
  • New Mexico Environment Department
  • New York State Department of Environmental Protection
  • North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality
  • Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
  • Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management - Office of Water Resources
  • South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control
  • State of Georgia - Environmental Protection Division
  • State of Michigan - Lake Michigan Unit - Surface Water Assessment Section - Water Resources Division - Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy
  • Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation
  • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
  • UMRBA (Upper Mississippi River Basin Association)
  • US Army Corps of Engineers
  • USGS Water Quality Data Portal - Harmful Algal Bloom Science in Texas
  • Utah Department of Environmental Quality - Division of Water Quality
  • Vermont Department of Health - Health and the Environment
  • Virginia Department of Health
  • West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
  • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
  • Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality

Their work monitoring and sharing cyanobacteria cell density measurements made this competition possible.

Helpful resources