NOAA creates future tech to fight off Erie algae

Published: Sep. 28, 2017 at 4:45 PM EDT
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It will take decades to really solve Lake Erie’s algal problems. But the technology of tomorrow is rolling out of an Ann Arbor lab today. Much of that ends up used in Toledo.

From high up in the cockpit to under the surface of Lake Erie, next year scientists are using an un-manned submarine to give us a better view of the science.

“One that we hope to make mobile on an autonomous vehicle,” Deborah Lee said. Lee is the director of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Michigan.

“And that vehicle will actually be able to be deployed over a two or three week period, measuring toxicity at multiple locations. It will be able to wander around and measure toxicity,” Steve Ruberg said. Ruberg is ‘group leader’ of the GLERL Marine Instrumentation lab.

Welcome to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, GLERL for short. The 80 researchers that work here churn out the tech that could one day save Lake Erie.

“It will actually do the analysis for the microcystin toxin in the can,” Lee said. And then it can communicate it back to us via cellular transmission.”

So this lets us know in very close to real time that we have toxins potentially near the intake.”

The days of anxiously waiting for lab tests will soon be history.

“So it really helps you identify the bacteria, the cyanobacteria that's causing all the problems out there,” Ruberg said.

These new tests can tell different algae apart and can even label Maumee River pollutants from what comes down from Detroit.

Buoys give us all kinds of information in the water column and satellites give us the view from space, but only on a clear day. Now a new tool from NOAA gives us the view in between, from a few thousand feet up.

The images of algae along West Sister Island are matched with what Dave Fanslow pulls from Erie.

“We ground truth that with instruments,” Fanslow said. He’s the head of a lab at GLERL.

That saves time and resources. The fluoroscope also picks out where the worst brands of algae are moving toward.

“It uses an LED array to instantaneously distinguish between the classifications of algae that are present,” Fanslow said.

That's something that just a few years ago, somebody would have had to pour it over a microscope for days on end.