Algae used to monitor climate change
By Steve Kuchera
Forum Communications Co., Pierce County Herald
Published May 16, 2007
Microscopic in size, algae goes largely unnoticed in the Great Lakes.
But researchers are using them as part of an early warning system indicating how invasive species, excessive nutrients and climate change are affecting the Great Lakes. Because they are short-lived and at the base of the food chain, algae reacts quickly to environmental changes, Natural Resources Research Institute researcher Euan Reavie said.
“So it makes sense that we track what’s going on in the Great Lakes and what’s happening to these algae over time,” he said. “That’s all part of this early warning system, to try to identify a problem before it becomes a larger problem.”
Early this year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Natural Resources Research Institute and University of Minnesota Duluth a $1 million, five-year grant to regularly collect, identify and test algae (single-celled plants) from sites across the Great Lakes.
The project is part of the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office’s Biological Open Water Surveillance Program. The program, which began in 1983, uses researchers from various fields to monitor the environmental pulse of the Great Lakes by tracking such things as water quality, fish, zooplankton (microscopic animals) and phytoplankton (algae).
“We are jumping on to the program to help with the monitoring of the algae,” Reavie said.
Gerald Niemi, director of the NRRI’s Center for Water and the Environment, said the institute has received few grants from the EPA’s surveillance program. “Receiving this grant is a testimony to the work Euan [Reavie] has been doing,” Niemi said.
“I like getting involved in projects like this where there are large questions,” he said. “I like to do things that are meaningful and for the public good.”
Earlier this spring, NRRI researcher Amy Kireta spent three weeks aboard the EPA research ship, Lake Guardian, collecting algae at 76 sites across the five Great Lakes. At each site, researchers lowered scientific devices into the water, stopping them just above the bottom. Depending on the depth, it could take as long as two hours to raise the device, testing the water all the way to the surface. Algae was collected only from the sunlit, upper 66 feet of water. Algae will be collected from the same sites twice a year — in spring and late-summer.
Studying algae is extremely valuable because they are the first to respond to environmental changes “rather than waiting for a fish kill,’’ Kireta said.
Work is beginning this spring on identifying and counting the species of plankton collected. Because species respond differently to environmental conditions, just those that the researchers find can provide a lot of information about the quality of the Great Lakes system.
“There are thousands of species of algae out there,” Reavie said.
Researchers hope to use what they learn to develop computer models that would determine water quality through the composition of the algae in an area. And not only can changes in algae indicate when things are going bad, they can also indicate if efforts to clean up the lakes are working, Reavie said.