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Grant supports research into toxic algae in Lake Erie

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

(L-R) Mike Campbell, Angelea Belfiore, Trevor Surgener

The presence of invasive and toxic algae in Lake Erie is a growing regional concern that has brought research teams from Mercyhurst and Gannon universities together in a collaborative, two-year investigative study funded by Pennsylvania Sea Grant.

Mercyhurst biology professor J. Michael Campbell, Ph.D., has partnered with Gannon principal investigator Harry R. Diz, Ph.D., professor of environmental science and engineering, to test the waters of Lake Erie’s Presque Isle Bay for harmful algal blooms (HABs) currently affecting the lake’s natural ecosystem.

HABs are caused by cyanobacteria that reproduce rapidly in fresh water when water temperatures increase in late summer, especially where an overabundance of nutrients are present, said Campbell. These algae are not generally consumed by freshwater zooplankton and compete with other algae that planktonic species consume.

If HABs decline and the cyanobacteria decompose in the deeper waters of a lake, they may then create oxygen-deprived dead zones or contribute to a toxic environment for native species. In a worst-case scenario, HABs can make lake waters used for human consumption undrinkable, said Campbell.

On a biweekly basis, Mercyhurst’s research team, which includes Angelea Belfiore, a sophomore environmental science/biology field studies major, and Trevor Surgener `15, a graduate of the sustainability studies program, are focused on characterizing the biological community by collecting and studying plant and animal plankton and forage fish. Researchers from Gannon have been testing the water chemistry of the bay and its tributary streams, as well as noting the physical characteristics of the waters.

“We want to better understand what causes these particular toxic species to become abundant,” said Campbell. “It’s not a simple process. To figure out what exactly is going on with Lake Erie and the bay, you have to look at the entire ecosystem because it’s very complex.”

Throughout the summer, the research team has boarded Gannon’s research vessel, the Environaut, to travel to three sampling sites on the bay. There they conduct tests to document the dynamic changes in water column temperature, light penetration, pH, nutrient concentrations and the plant and animal plankton community.

After data and sample collection, researchers devote hours each week in the lab to process their findings. The massive datasets will help fine-tune an ecosystem model of Lake Erie’s Presque Isle Bay, which the team anticipates will be useful in predicting future incidences of HABs in the bay, while also providing useful information for managing the problem.  

“We can only do our part to do the good science, to learn more about these algal blooms, and see if we can in fact change it,” said Campbell. “If nothing else, perhaps we can demonstrate the importance of increasing temperature through our findings to help motivate people to address climate change — it really does affect us right here at home.”

The research is funded by a $74,375 Pennsylvania Sea Grant with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Pennsylvania Sea Grant is a nonprofit organization that promotes the ecological and economic sustainability of Pennsylvania’s coastal resources through the development of science-based research, education and extension programs.

This is not the first time harmful algal blooms have invaded Lake Erie waters. Lake Erie was considered a dead lake in the 1960s until the early 1970s when a similar, but magnified HABs incident occurred. Campbell said that at the time, poorly treated sewage discharge and phosphate-containing detergents were seeping into the water, cultivating an “obnoxious bloom.” As massive amounts of cyanobacteria in the summer blooms began to decompose, oxygen-deprived dead zones appeared in the lake where fish could not survive.

“To solve this problem in the 70s, there was a national effort dedicated to banning phosphate detergents and improvements in sewage treatment practices, which were contaminating the water,” said Campbell. “This ban reduced the issue and Lake Erie showed a strong recovery. It’s a famous case studied in the world of ecology.”

The HABs in Lake Erie that the research team is currently studying re-emerged as a serious concern two years ago in the western basin of the lake along the shores of northwestern Ohio. This time, phosphate detergents were not the cause; instead, nutrient pollution from agricultural activities in the lake’s western basin watershed were largely to blame. Scientists thought that a combination of unusual weather patterns mixed with the high levels of fertilizers contributed to particularly dense blooms.

Since elevated water temperatures in late summer are a key environmental factor driving cyanobacteria blooms, scientists around the globe are concerned that HABs are going to cause more frequent problems in the future. Predicted regional effects of climate change, including more rapid seasonal heating of lake waters, may increase the likelihood of toxins from cyanobacteria affecting safety and treatment costs of public water supplies.

“The better we understand the various factors besides temperature that stimulate HABs, the more effectively we can manage and minimize harmful effects of the blooms,” said Campbell.

For more information about the Presque Isle Bay HABs research, contact Dr. Campbell at jcampbell@mercyhurst.edu or call 814-824-2374.