12:19 PM

Smaller-than-average harmful algal bloom predicted for western Lake Erie

Experts anticipate a less severe bloom than last year’s

NOAA and its research partners are forecasting that western Lake Erie will experience a smaller-than-average harmful algal bloom (HAB) this summer, which would result in a less severe bloom than 2022.

Ohio Sea Grant and The Ohio State University Stone Laboratory hosted a live web event today featuring NOAA’s official annual seasonal HABs forecast for the lake and highlights of recent related research efforts.

This year’s bloom is expected to measure 3, with a potential range of 2-4.5 on the severity index – whereas last year’s bloom was measured at a 6.8.

The index is based on the bloom’s biomass – the amount of algae – during the peak 30 days of the bloom. An index above 5 indicates more severe blooms. Blooms over 7 are particularly severe, with extensive scum formation and coverage affecting the lake. The largest blooms occurred in 2011, with a severity index of 10, and 2015, with a severity index of 10.5.

“The harmful algal bloom forecast translates the latest science into actionable information for our partners and the public,” said NOAA Chief Scientist Sarah Kapnick. “As we move into the summer season, having accurate, reliable information about this year’s expected bloom will help protect public health and economic activity for communities along Lake Erie.”

Lake Erie HABs consisting of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are capable of producing microcystin, a known liver toxin that poses a risk to human and wildlife health. Such blooms may force cities and local governments to treat drinking water or close beaches, and can harm vital local economies by preventing people from fishing, swimming, boating and visiting the shoreline.

The size of a bloom isn’t necessarily an indication of how toxic it is. For example, the toxins in a large bloom may not be as concentrated as in a smaller bloom. Each algal bloom is unique in terms of size, toxicity and, ultimately, its impact on local communities.

“By consistently improving the science behind our forecasts, we’re giving Great Lakes communities the information they need to plan for blooms of varying severity,” said NOAA’s National Ocean Service Director Nicole LeBoeuf. “Understanding and addressing hazards such as harmful algal blooms can help us ensure that the Great Lakes are an engine of the blue economy.”

The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s (NCCOS) Lake Erie HAB Forecast website provides predictions and visualizations of the bloom’s location and movement on the lake’s surface, as well as where the bloom is located within the water column. This information is especially helpful to water treatment plant operators, because intake structures are usually located below the surface, so the risk of toxins in their source water may be greater when these cells sink.

“NCCOS’s Lake Erie HAB forecast continues to be a valuable resource for Lake Erie residents, visitors and the state,” said Christopher Winslow, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Laboratory. “This NOAA forecast and the research being conducted by academic institutions and both state and federal agencies to understand blooms and nutrient runoff will continue to guide efforts to address these summer bloom events.”

Forecast details 

NOAA expects a start of the visible bloom in mid- to late July. The duration of the bloom depends on the frequency of wind events in September, which cannot be predicted this far in advance. The bloom will remain mostly in areas of the lake’s western basin. The central and eastern basins of the lake are usually unaffected, although localized blooms may occur around some of the rivers after summer rainstorms.

Bloom severity forecast compared to previous years. The wide red bar is the likely range of severity based on the different models used and reflect uncertainty in the July total bioavailable phosphorus (TBP) load. A severity below 3 is the goal of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA).

The range in forecasted severity reflects the uncertainty in forecasting precipitation, particularly for July. Larger rain events during the summer could result in increased river flow and a higher severity index. NOAA will issue a seasonal forecast update in early August based on observed rainfall in the western basin watershed.

"While this spring has been quite dry, the lake received a large nutrient load in March, which will produce at least a mild bloom this summer,” said Richard Stumpf, NCCOS’s lead scientist for the seasonal Lake Erie bloom forecast. “However, like recent years, we have a potential of additional nutrient load in July, which could lead to a moderate bloom."

The Lake Erie forecast is part of a NOAA Ecological Forecasting initiative that aims to deliver accurate, relevant, timely and reliable ecological forecasts directly to coastal resource managers, public health officials and the public. In addition to the early season projections from NOAA and its partners, NOAA also issues HAB forecasts during the bloom season. These forecasts provide the current extent and five-day outlooks of where the bloom will travel and what concentrations are likely to be seen, allowing local decision makers to make informed management decisions. NOAA is actively developing tools to detect and predict how toxic blooms will be.

Nutrient load data for the forecasts came from Heidelberg University in Ohio, and the various forecast models are run by NCCOS, the University of Michigan, North Carolina State University, LimnoTech, Stanford University and the Carnegie Institution for Science. Field observations used for monitoring and modeling are done in partnership with a number of NOAA services, including its Ohio River Forecast Center, NCCOS, Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory and Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, as well as Ohio Sea Grant, The Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, The University of Toledo and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

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