New robotic labs to track toxicity of Lake Erie cyanobacteria bloom this summer

July 30, 2019
Written By:
Tom Johengen

ANN ARBOR—New robotic lake-bottom laboratories will keep a watchful eye on western Lake Erie’s cyanobacteria bloom this summer, and a mobile lab housed inside a cigar-shaped autonomous underwater glider will be tested there in mid-August.

In a direct response to the 2014 Toledo water crisis, a research team from the University of Michigan’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration field-tested an environmental sample processor, or ESP, in fall 2016 in western Lake Erie and deployed it for regular service in July 2017.

The $375,000 ESPniagara sits on the lake bottom and tracks levels of dangerous toxins produced by cyanobacteria. The “lab in a can” was positioned several miles west of the city of Toledo’s water intake, where it could provide about one day’s notice if highly toxic water appeared to be heading toward the intake.

Two more ESPs—ESPrush and ESPnessie—will enter service this summer, according to Tom Johengen, associate director of CIGLR, which is based at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability. Funding was provided through the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Great Lakes Observing System.

The three ESPs will rotate duties so that two of them are always in the lake, providing uninterrupted data collection throughout the summer. ESPniagara is already in place near the Toledo water intake. The first of the new ESPs is scheduled for deployment this week near the city of Monroe’s water intake, Johengen said.

“Our 2019 goal is to continually maintain two ESP stations within Lake Erie throughout the bloom season, one near the Toledo water intake and one near the Monroe water intake,” he said.

In addition, the research team will test a roving underwater laboratory in western Lake Erie for 10 days in mid-August. It’s a third-generation ESP system with mobile 3G housed inside a cigar-shaped Tethys long-range autonomous underwater vehicle. The AUV glider is about 7 feet long and 2 feet in diameter and will cover about 25 miles per day.

The Mobile 3G-AUV technology is being developed in partnership between CIGLR, NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the University of Washington. Funding was provided through a variety of sources at NOAA, including the Ocean Technology Transfer program, the Technology Testbed program, and NOAA’s ‘Omics program.

The mobile lab will collect data about the cyanobacteria bloom—toxin concentrations, genetic and environmental information—while traveling throughout the western Lake Erie basin. The blooms are also known as harmful algal blooms, or HABs.

“NOAA is developing this autonomous technology to enable persistent, 24/7 detection and mapping of HAB toxins,” said Steve Ruberg, an observing systems researcher at NOAA’s Ann Arbor lab who is leading the development of the Mobile 3G-AUV technology.

Research ecologist Reagan Errera oversees the ESP program at the NOAA lab.

CIGLR and NOAA researchers also maintain eight monitoring stations in Lake Erie’s western basin. Water samples are collected weekly throughout the summer to study bloom development, spatial extent, duration and termination. CIGLR and NOAA also support an online “HAB forecast” that uses remote-sensed estimations of bloom intensity and spatial coverage and projects their likely movement.


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