As warmer weather approaches and people make their plans for the summer, researchers at the University of Georgia urge the public to be wary of the perfect conditions for harmful algal blooms in lakes across the state and to understand the dangers that come with them.
UGA faculty members Susan Wilde, an associate professor of aquatic science, and Deepak Mishra, a professor and associate head in the department of geography, are working to better understand these blooms and what they mean for the health of the environment and the public, and have developed an online tool to help identify these blooms.
While many kinds of algal blooms are not harmful, occur naturally and are important to aquatic ecosystems, there are several negative effects for bodies of fresh water overrun by harmful algal blooms, which are characterized by the overproduction of certain types of cyanobacteria.
Certain types of cyanobacteria make up these harmful algal blooms, and they produce toxins in the water they inhabit, Mishra said.
There is still plenty to be learned about the effects of these toxins on animals and humans. Initial exposure can lead to same-day symptoms like skin rashes, according to a press release from SOLitude Lake Management. Mishra said it can also lead to nausea and vomiting. There are suspected links between longer exposure to these toxins and much more serious symptoms such as neurodegenerative diseases like ALS or Parkinson’s, said Wilde and Mishra, but there is not enough research yet to draw definitive conclusions.
Algal blooms form in bodies of warm water that are rich in phosphorus or nitrogen. Although these conditions can occur naturally, warming temperatures from climate change and excess nutrients of runoff water from practices such as lawn or golf course maintenance have greatly amplified these conditions, Wilde said.
While there are many different measures that can be taken to prevent algal blooms, such as planting certain vegetation in or around the water or using algaecides, both Mishra and Wilde emphasized the importance of public awareness on this issue.
“Education is the main key because we need more public support for this,” Wilde said.
Keeping tabs on the conditions of every body of freshwater in Georgia is impossible for researchers, which is why it is important for the public to be aware of and recognize harmful algal blooms.
Mishra has taken this a step further working on a cyber infrastructure project called CyanoTRACKER.
CyanoTRACKER is an online tool that allows anybody to take a picture of a body of freshwater they suspect to have harmful algal blooms and post it on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with specific hashtags.
CyanoTRACKER will gather data for Mishra and other researchers. With this data, researchers can determine what to do if there is indeed cyanobacteria present in the water, or whether preventative measures are necessary if there is not.
Mishra and Wilde said an educated and proactive public effort will be needed to prevent the amount of these harmful algal blooms from worsening over time.
“Unless we can figure out a way to use a lot less nutrients in our landscape and capture those nutrients on site, we're going to get more and more of this,” Wilde said.