Tick Tick Bloom: Harmful Algal Bloom Detection Challenge Hosted By NASA

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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.

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