Breakthroughs in detecting Harmful Algal Blooms using satellite imagery

Photo of Odell Lake, Oregon in 2020 by Sam Doak at Sunset Cove

Satellite imagery is proving to be an effective and essential tool to detect harmful algal blooms, or HABs, in Oregon’s lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Brian Fulfrost, a water quality analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, has led an effort to add satellite imagery to a series of tools that a new  team of specialists are using to monitor and assess potential cyanobacteria HABs.

Cyanobacteria HABs are blue green algae that can produce toxins and odors depending on conditions including warm temperatures, slow water flow and strong light. HABs have reportedly caused the deaths of dogs and made humans ill. DEQ monitors, samples and tests waters to look for the presence of HABs and to identify potential risks.

“Improving our ability to detect imminent harmful algal blooms in lakes and reservoirs will allow us to better protect human health, local economies, and ecosystems throughout Oregon” says Dr. Daniel Sobota, water quality analyst at DEQ. Sobota is leading an effort to create an early warning system to detect HABs across Oregon. Part of that effort includes collecting satellite data and correlating the results with on-the-ground monitoring at multiple lakes and reservoirs in the upper Deschutes River basin in central Oregon.

EPA Cyanobacteria Assessment Network (CyAn) images of alage bloom monitored over time at Odell Lake, Oregon in 2020

DEQ is using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Cyanobacteria Assessment Network (CyAN), which includes access to satellite imagery data from mid-2016 to present. Fulfrost saw the opportunity to use satellite imagery of HABs as a more efficient way to support the work DEQ and OHA do to help evaluate, along with sampling and expert opinion, when potential public health advisory on recreational and drinking water safety might be warranted.

Salem, Oregon, May 2018

“This tool has enhanced our ability to protect water quality throughout the state. The satellite imagery can provide cyanobacteria counts for about 60 lakes within Oregon,” says Fulfrost. “The tool calculates the potential volume of cyanobacteria every one to two days within water bodies using the imagery.”

The satellite alone cannot detect toxins in cyanobacteria, but it is possible with additional monitoring methods, including sampling and a strong team. Sobota helped assemble the Harmful Algal Bloom Coordination Team this year to improve the agency’s HABs monitoring program and water quality projects such as developing pollution reduction plans and the analyses involving satellite imagery.

Map by Dan Brown, DEQ, April 2019

Published by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

DEQ’s mission is to be a leader in restoring, maintaining and enhancing the quality of Oregon’s air, land and water.

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