When the water at Hot Hole Pond in Loudon turned yucky green last week, a 21st-century reaction was in order. Yes, you haters of cyanobacteria explosions, there is now an app for that.
It’s called BloomWatch, which sounds like a publication overseeing the floral industry but is actually the latest in a string of excellent citizen-science programs that harness smart phones and a willing public to help us understand the world. It’s also one of a trio of programs being rolled out by the Environmental Protection Agency so we can help learn more about these nasty algae blooms, and maybe even control them.
BloomWatch is pretty straightforward. Install the app and when you see a bloom of cyanobacteria fouling a pond or lake, snap a photo, input a little information and upload it for the benefit of everybody from state agencies to lake associations to a family looking for a swimming spot.
“All we really want to do is document the problem,” said Hilary Snook, an environmental scientist with the EPA in Massachusetts and a driving force behind BloomWatch.
If it seems to you that we are being subjected these days to more algae blooms – times when one of several species of microscopic bacteria goes bananas, exploding in numbers until it covers the water with a stinky excrescence full of toxic byproducts – you are probably right. “The trend is: We are getting more of them,” Snook said.
The causes of this increase will come as no surprise.
Bacteria, like warm water and temperatures, are rising. Lakeside development, from paving driveways to fertilizing lawns, makes it easier for bloom-causing material, especially phosphorus, to end up in the water.
And the changing climate is causing more extreme precipitation, with dry spells like the current drought interspersed with heavier rainfalls, a combination that produces more runoff.
“The precipitation patterns have changed considerably. One of the big issues we’re concerned about in the EPA as these rainstorm changes. Even in a pristine lake, you’re getting more nutrients washed off the landscape into the water body,” Snook said.
It’s more complicated than that, however. (This is science: It’s always more complicated than that.)
Consider something called “watershed dehydration,” a term that’s new to me.
“In urbanized areas, we put in so much infrastructure, instead of storm water seeping into the ground and slowly being cleansed and reintroduced (to lakes), it quickly shoots through as storm water, into the water body and out of the water body,” Snook said.
When water slowly percolates through the ground before seeping into ponds or lakes, it not only gets cleansed, but cools down. With less of that percolation, Snook said, there’s less natural cooling of our water bodies, and since “bacteria love warm water,” this isn’t good.
Another problem are dams, which hold back water, collecting nutrients and raising its temperature.
“All these little subtleties, they add up,” Snook said.
Snook said EPA developed BloomWatch to try to calibrate the surge in algae blooms after winning a grant to “engage citizens using basic tools to provide information for big problems.” Algae blooms were an obvious target.
Many universities and government agencies have similar smart phone-related citizen science programs, usually involving environmental or wildlife issues. Nowadays you can upload observations and data about everything from dragonflies to invasive weeds to snow cover, even light pollution.
What’s most interesting about BloomWatch is that it has two companion programs: CyanoScope and CyanoMonitoring. The former involves buying a kit that Snook and colleagues put together that contains such things as a nice little microscope and a bacteria collection net, which can determine exactly what species of cyanobacteria, a.k.a. blue-green algae, is causing the bloom.
All slimy blooms look pretty much the same to us, but there are plenty of possible culprits. UNH’s Center for Freshwater Biology lists a “dirty dozen” of cyanobacteria species to look for, carrying names like Anabaena Anabaenopsis (no relation to Roseanne Roseannadanna) and Woronichinia, which sounds like the next trendy ingredient in hipster smoothies. Getting us to help figure out which species are blooming in which times and places is an important part of reacting to the problem.
Snook envisions lake associations or two conservation commissions buying a kit and making it available for volunteers to use. The EPA will have training videos online.
The third program, CyanoMonitoring, is more complicated as it involves instruments like a fluorometer that need to be calibrated and will probably require in-person training, Snook said.
The three programs, collectively the Northeast Cyanobacteria Monitoring Program (the website is cyanos.org), really only launched this summer, and portions such as web training are still being developed. I found just two New Hampshire reports on the interactive map for BloomWatch.
But they will keep maturing, so next summer when you read a Monitor story about a disgusting film being found on a local pond, perhaps there will be a BloomWatch component.
“We need to reach out, get more people involved. People with a little skin in the game are going to be more apt to invest time and effort,” Snook noted.
Nothing slimy or stinky about that.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)