Ohio Sea Grant Researcher receives NOAA grant to study when algal blooms become harmful

Justin Chaffin, research scientist for The Ohio State University’s Stone Lab and Ohio Sea Grant, along with partners across Ohio and Michigan, has received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to study what causes Lake Erie algal blooms to become toxic. The study, which will incorporate both computer modeling and hands-on laboratory experiments, is focused on providing more guidance to water utilities on when they should plan to treat drinking water for algal toxins.

The NOAA grant of $248,413 supports the first year of this new research project, part of an anticipated total $749,525 pending availability of future agency funding. The project is funded through the Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) research program, administered by the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) in NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Chaffin, based at Ohio State’s Stone Lab, is partnering with researchers from LimnoTech, Bowling Green State University, Michigan Technological University, The University of Toledo and Wayne State University on the three-year project. The importance of the study was demonstrated dramatically by the 2014 drinking water ban in Toledo, which was caused by algal toxins and affected almost half a million people.

“While forecasting harmful algal bloom size is reasonably accurate right now and real-time sensors in the lake provide the location of the bloom, we still have fundamental questions about what controls when blooms become toxic, and how to predict that toxicity,” said Chaffin, Stone Lab’s research coordinator. “For this project, we’ll be looking into the environmental factors that influence the dynamics between blooms that produce toxins and blooms that do not produce toxins, along with factors that cause degradation of microcystins in the environment.”

Products to come out of the study will include specific technical guidance to drinking water utilities and other stakeholders on incorporating improved forecasting, including both algae biomass and toxicity, into their daily operations. The scientists also plan to create presentations and tools to share their results with other researchers and anyone who holds an interest in harmful algal bloom research, mitigation and prevention.

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