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Dartmouth to Lead Study on Algae Blooms

  • A cyanobacterial bloom on the surface of Lake Sunapee, N.H. A team of researchers from Dartmouth College, the University of New Hampshire and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies has received a $1.47 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to study the issue. (Sam Fey photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, October 02, 2017

Hanover — A Dartmouth College-led team of researchers wants to know why the Northeast’s lakes are experiencing more algae blooms, and what can be done to prevent them.

Over the next three years, the group of both earth and social scientists plan to use satellite images, drones and citizen volunteers to find out what’s changing in the region’s lakes.

“We’re at a critical stage where we can learn about what’s happening and hopefully do something about it,” said David Lutz, a research associate and lecturer at Dartmouth who is leading the team. “It’s too important to wait around on.”

Dartmouth scientists, along with those at the University of New Hampshire and New York-based Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, recently received a $1.47 million NASA grant to study water quality on about 2,000 lakes in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and New York.

Specifically, the team will try to answer why cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, has become so prevalent throughout the Northeast.

Every summer, state biologists issue advisories at beaches warning of the bacterial blooms, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, mild fever, skin rashes, eye and nose irritations and general malaise, according to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. But it hasn’t always been that way.

“I think one of the questions that folks across the Northeast are asking right now is ‘Why are we seeing cyanobacteria blooms where we haven’t seen them in recent historical memory?’ ” said Kathryn Cottingham, chairwoman of Dartmouth’s department of biological sciences and member of the research team.

Although cyanobacteria is naturally occurring, blooms are commonly the result of excess nutrients in the water, she said. Large blooms, like those in Lake Erie, are linked to fertilizer applied near wetlands, which is then carried downstream into lakes.

“But here in the Northeast, we don’t have a lot of that agricultural activity that’s driving the changes in the lakes, so we have to look for other issues, other potential drivers,” said Cottingham in an interview last week.

Aside from potential health risks, Lutz said, the increase of could also be detrimental to recreational actives around the lakes, which are traditionally lined with second homes and forests in New Hampshire.

“These are very important locations in our state in terms of having lots of amenities, people coming to recreate and visit from out-of-state,” Lutz said. “Our lakes regions are a big part of our local and regional economies.”

To tackle the problem, Lutz and Cottingham are working with an interdisciplinary team that includes not only environmental scientists, but also demographers and drone operators.

The goal, they said, is to look at human-related sources of the cyanobacteria blooms, as well as the ecological.

“This is a very different way to do this kind of science and we’re really optimistic that we’ll get further than we can get with any of our individual approaches by themselves,” Cottingham said.

Work will primarily involve comparing historic satellite images from NASA with those from today, Lutz said. Access to those photos will give researchers the ability to see where water quality changes and in what context, he said.

“You can see blooms from space, you can detect generally how much activity there is in terms of plants and algae,” Lutz said.

The team also intends to monitor and fly drones over three “focal lakes:” Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire and lakes Auburn and Great Pond in Maine.

The lakes were chosen because each is the subject of active research, and Cottingham herself has participated in a long-term project on Sunapee. They’ll be used to test ideas and provide benchmarks for satellite findings,” Lutz said.

“It’s really nice when you’re doing work like this to have a known system that you understand what’s been going on and you can calibrate everything to,” he said.

The team began its work in August and expects to start drone work sometime in the spring, Lutz said. Initial findings will likely be released in a year, with work ongoing for all three years, he said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.