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NCCOS Project

Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) Forecasting

This project began in January 1999 and is Ongoing

Our offshore HAB forecasts notify coastal managers before blooms reach the coast. Our forecasts identify harmful blooms, location, size and trajectory. Our early warnings provide health officials, managers and water treatment operators’ timely information to better focus testing for beach and shellfish closures or water treatment. We develop new tools to identify and detect HAB species, toxins and conditions conducive to blooms to ensure safe seafood, recreation areas and drinking water.

Why We Care
Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are a growing problem and there are not sufficient funds to sample every event. A national HAB forecast capability, based on a network of regional HAB forecast systems, would help protect public and animal health, through safe consumption of fish and shellfish, avoidance of beaches affected by HABs, and better drinking water treatment. Our forecasts target when and where states should sample waters, saving localities money. They help shellfisheries stay open or harvest earlier to make up for closures later on and inform water treatment facilities to use the most appropriate treatment methods. By isolating when protective measures are needed, states can limit response measures to when a bloom is likely to occur along a particular water intake, shellfish bed or beach. This reduces false alarms and unnecessary costs.

There are several species of HABs, which cause a variety of problems such as wild and domestic animal deaths, shellfish toxicity, public health effects and taste and odor problems in drinking water. For instance, blooms of Karenia brevis in the Gulf of Mexico discolor the water and are known to cause fish kills, shellfish toxicity, and respiratory distress in humans. Cyanobacterial blooms cause taste and odor problems in drinking water, and kill wildlife and domestic animals. The toxins from cyanobacteria can cause skin irritation, liver damage and pose a threat to human health. Alexandrium fundyense can cause paralysis and death if contaminated shellfish is consumed.

Therefore, NOAA has identified seven regions where HABs are a critical problem to federal, state, and local managers:

  • Florida and eastern Gulf of Mexico (Karenia brevis)
  • Western Gulf of Mexico (Karenia brevis)
  • Lake Erie (cyanobacteria)
  • Gulf of Maine (Alexandrium fundyense)
  • Washington Coast (Pseudo-nitzschia)
  • California Coast (multiple species)
  • Chesapeake Bay (multiple species)

What We Are Doing
Funding through NOAA, NASA, CDC and others has allowed for the development of necessary tools for detecting HABs, monitoring their development, transport, toxicity and determining their effect on local wildlife, humans and socioeconomics. We have now reached a point in several regions where the understanding of these blooms is mature enough to put into place the detection and monitoring tools, and to bring these systems into an operational capacity. Although several regions have been or are anticipated to be operational over the next decade, we still have a long way to go to reach a National Forecast capacity for HABs. We continue to refine the forecasting tools based on research results and the development of more useful detection and monitoring tools.

Benefits of Our Work
The current operational HAB forecasts for the coasts of Florida and Texas monitor and predict “red-tides” caused by Karenia brevis blooms. These forecasts provide assessments of the extent of the blooms, allowing for more effective sampling and monitoring. They are the products of combining data from various ocean-observing systems, including satellite imagery, meteorological data from NOAA observing stations; field data collected by state and university monitoring programs; and models which predict where a bloom is going to go over the next few days. This information is then synthesized and interpreted by an expert within the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) to provide the current and future location and intensity of blooms.

These operational reports for Florida and Texas are being used to forecast events and are provided to managers as an e-mailed HAB Bulletin bi-weekly during an active bloom and weekly during non-bloom periods. In addition, an Operational Conditions Report is provided to the public via the NOAA Harmful Algal Bloom Forecasts website.

“With this new forecast, we now have an idea of when and where blooms are predicted to occur and can share products with on-the-ground local managers to reduce the human health threats associated with algal toxins,” said Sonia Joseph, Michigan Sea Grant outreach coordinator for the NOAA Center of Excellence for Great Lakes and Human Health.

Next Steps
Our goal is to provide regionalized HAB forecasts to support all states affected by harmful algal blooms. Developing and transitioning mature HAB forecasts from research status to routine and reliable operational products involves partnerships between a variety of offices within NOAA and with external partners. We are collaborating with CO-OPS and external partners to develop a plan for the operational transition of predictive tools and models that have been developed through management partnerships and research projects. More information regarding these developmental forecast projects are provided on the HAB-OFS Developmental Forecast Projects webpage.

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