As sun-drenched media members and various other dignitaries crowded around the back deck of the docked Bio-Lab – bobbing gently in the blue-green waters just off the shore of Ohio State University’s Gibraltar Island (situated among the Lake Erie Islands, just north of Sandusky, OH) – Chris Winslow, Ph.D., drew a satisfied breath and scanned the seemingly endless shimmering horizon, a look of peace and fulfilment filling his face.
“Yeah, it’s really tough for me to get out of bed every morning,” the Ohio State University Sea Grant College & Stone Laboratory interim director joked, soaking in the near-tropical midsummer conditions.
Winslow, quarterback of a multi-institutional team that includes Heidelberg College (a place this author spent his freshman year), Bowling Green State University, and its hated rival University of Toledo, among others, heads up the state’s research efforts (along with Heidelberg’s Dr. Laura Johnson and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s [NOAA] Richard Stumpf, Ph.D.) on the Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) issue on Lake Erie.
The team operates throughout the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) watershed, with its base of operations being Ohio State University’s Stone Lab, located near Upper Midwest tourist trap Put-in-Bay, OH.
Winslow’s appreciation of the near-perfect summer conditions aside, the team certainly has reason to be happy of late, if the recently unveiled HAB forecast for 2016 proves accurate.
According to information presented at the July 7 press gathering, the 2016 HAB is forecast to measure a 5.5 on the severity index, but could range anywhere between 3.0 and 7.0, and the forecast is comparable to the relatively mild conditions last seen from 2008 to 2010.
For context, last season’s HAB came in at a hefty 10.5 on the one-to-ten scale, while the 2011 bloom that alarmingly drifted all the way across the central basin, almost reaching Cleveland, OH’s, municipal water intake, was rated a 10 at the time.
Addressing the assembled press junket earlier in the day, Heidelberg’s Johnson outlined a few theories on why her team predicts the 2016 HAB to shrink.
“In 2015 we had several large rain events in June and July; so far this year has been pretty dry. We’re at a -4.34 inch rain deficit,” she explained. “Also, nitrate is thought to feed the bloom and typically there can be a big nitrate ‘flash’ in June with heavy rains, and we’ve seemed to avoid that situation this year, as well.”
Johnson and her team at Heidelberg (a small Northwest Ohio-based liberal arts institution well-known internationally for its water quality program) maintain a watershed-wide network of Lake Erie tributary monitoring equipment, and her prediction models estimate a total bioavailable phosphorus* load in the WLEB at 189 metric tons (as of July 5).
For context, in 2015 the same estimate on July 5 would have been well north of 700 metric tons.
According to Johnson, “the key this year will be, since it’s looking like this is the year it doesn’t rain much, is it (the smaller bloom) because of our best management practices, or just a cyclical low precipitation cycle?”
Another key, according to NOAA’s Stumpf, will be figuring out just how much residual algae 2015’s monster bloom may have left behind this winter, and also how wind patterns will affect the distribution of algae throughout the WLEB.
“Bloom impacts can vary with the winds, but I expect that much of the lake will be fine for the majority (of the summer),” Stumpf advises.
Still, not all is set in stone, as several cliffhangers remain to play out this summer on the lake, according to OSU’s Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, Special Advisor, Ohio Sea Grant & Stone Lab and US Co-Chair of the Objectives and Targets Task Force of Annex 4 of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
Reutter says that nitrogen and sunlight are suspected by many researchers as the main inputs that fuel growth of the microcystin toxins that shut down Toledo’s municipal water system in 2014, and both will be in steady supply this summer, so the 2016 HAB could in theory produce a higher concentration of toxins than last year’s.
“The good news is that, generally speaking, blooms are usually the most toxic early on and will decline in toxicity throughout the summer,” he explains. “This could turn out to be a good year, from a research standpoint, to figure out under what conditions certain strains (of the microcystins) produce more toxins.”
A couple other issues the OSU Sea Grant team is working on going forward is figuring out a way to deploy science-based nutrient monitoring equipment at the mouth of the Detroit River, which Winslow says provides 94% of Lake Erie’s water, and developing a system for forecasting the level and concentration of toxins the HAB will produce each year, similar to the yearly HAB severity index predictions (which predict the biomass, or size, of the HAB).
*The bioavailable phosphorus metric combines dissolved phosphorus, or that which is already suspended in the water, as well as particulate phosphorus, which is what washes directly off farm fields.