Predicting severe weather can save lives, but can forecasting algae blooms save Lake Okeechobee?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working on the ability to better predict when excessive algae will occur in Florida’s beleaguered Lake O in a unique program that focuses on forecasting cyanobacteria.
NOAA already issues forecasts for red tide out of a special Harmful Algae Blooms office in its National Ocean Service. Red tide is the common name for a phenomenon where intense blooms of phytoplankton, which can produce toxins and deplete oxygen levels in water, inundate waterways.
But only one NOAA forecast is currently available for blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, and that’s on Lake Erie.
Now, NOAA’s National Center for Ocean Science, is also working on forecasts for Lake Okeechobee.
“If we can establish a way to monitor, then there is the potential for forecasting and if you know when they occur, then you can identify why they occurred,” said Rick Stumpf, a NOAA oceanographer in the Center for Ocean Science. “We’ll be looking at blooms back 10 years and literally trying to quantify the blooms.”
The forecasts for Lake Erie, which suffers runoff high in phosphorous from agriculture, have been ongoing for five years.
Stumpf said researchers were working on the Lake Okeechobee project a few years ago, but were stymied when the satellite they were using “stopped talking to Earth.”
In February, they hooked up with a new satellite and are analyzing photos of Lake Okeechobee to measure the size of the bloom. Environmental groups that reviewed a recent NASA satellite image estimated the bloom to be about 200 square miles, or a quarter of the lake’s surface.
Stumpf said he’s seen recent images where half of the lake was covered.
“It’s a fairly extensive bloom,” Stumpf said.
Blue-green algae — a bacteria that thrives in warm water with high nitrogen and phosphorous levels — is a reoccurring problem in Florida, where septic tanks, fertilizer runoff and freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee work together to bolster its growth in brackish estuaries such as the St. Lucie River.
It was first identified this year in May after months of discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the brackish waters of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. The goal is to reduce the lake’s levels to assure the safety of its dike.
In Lake Erie, Stumpf said agriculture interests and university researchers are looking at ways to reduce phosphorous levels, especially when the forecast predicts that conditions – temperature, rainfall – are ripe for an abundance of algae.
“What we’ve learned about cyanobacteria in Lake Erie is transferable to Lake Okeechobee,” Stumpf said. “Our overall goal is to create a monitoring program for these kinds of blooms for the whole country, and Florida is a starting area.”