- Apply to UW
- Programs & Majors
- Cost & Financial Aid
- Current Students
- UW Life
- About UW
Published May 11, 2020
A University of Wyoming faculty member recently received a Resources for the Future (RFF) grant to study the adverse consequences of harmful algal blooms on water bodies in California and, using satellite data, estimate its value for predicting harmful algal blooms before they actually occur.
RFF is an American nonprofit organization that conducts independent research into environmental, energy and natural resource issues, primarily via economics and other social sciences. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., RFF performs research around the world.
The $100,000 grant started April 1 and runs through March 31, 2021.
“The aim of the study is to develop an economic model for quantifying the value of information from satellite data for use in harmful algal bloom early detection systems,” says Stephen Newbold, a UW assistant professor of economics. “The original source of funds is NASA, and this grant is part of a program to develop and improve methods for valuing satellite data products more broadly, so NASA and others can better prioritize future investments in and applications of such technologies.”
Satellite data can be used in at least two ways, he says. First, the data can help provide more accurate real-time predictions of the occurrence of blooms, which can be delivered to recreators on the internet or a smartphone app. Second, the data can be used by local water quality managers in prioritizing locations for direct testing of water quality conditions in the field, which can lead to more timely postings of water quality advisories or temporary closures.
“More timely information about harmful algal blooms can help recreators avoid undesirable and potentially unhealthy water quality conditions and, thereby, increase their overall outdoor recreation experiences,” Newbold says. “And it can help water quality managers post more accurate and timely warnings about potentially unhealthy conditions in lakes, rivers and streams, which will reduce exposure of people and pets to toxic algae.”
Harmful algal blooms are excessive growth of otherwise naturally occurring algae that can form mats on the surfaces of lakes, rivers, streams and estuaries, and often contain species of cyanobacteria that are toxic to animals and people. When algal blooms decompose, they can reduce the oxygen available in the water column for fish and other aquatic animals.
Harmful algal blooms can have adverse consequences for commercial fisheries, recreation, property values, pets and livestock, and human health. These blooms are recorded in all 50 states in the United States; are growing in frequency and severity due to increased loads of nitrogen and phosphorous in urban and agricultural run-off; and are expected to be further exacerbated by climate change.
Newbold says his group will study a set of large lakes in California, for which both satellite data on water quality conditions and administrative data on the number of visits by recreational users are available over a period of five years or more. Data scoping for the study is underway, but this could include 100 or more lakes throughout the state, he says.
California is a good place to conduct the focus study because the state has a large number of freshwater lakes used for swimming, boating and fishing by a large population of recreational users. Additionally, a prototype early warning system is already in place, and there is a long record of data on harmful algal blooms in California lakes, Newbold says.
Reliable early warning systems supported by near real-time satellite imaging data can allow those who enjoy recreational activities to divert their visits away from water bodies currently experiencing a harmful algal bloom to water sites that are not impacted. This will result in an increase in the overall enjoyment of water-based recreation activities; reduce the risk of adverse health effects; and mitigate the regional economic impacts associated with lost visitation days.
While the study will take place in California, the results can be useful to lakes in Wyoming and across the United States.
“Harmful algal blooms have been recorded in all 50 U.S. states, so the results of this study could be applied to Wyoming and elsewhere in the country,” Newbold says. “Furthermore, the framework we aim to develop in this study could be used to value satellite or other remote sensing data collected for a wide range of environmental monitoring applications. A potential Wyoming application is the indirect measurement of snow cover and vegetation status during key times in the annual migration cycle of Wyoming’s ungulates, such as elk and mule deer.”
Newbold’s research team includes Sarah Lindley, a Ph.D. student from Springfield, Ore., majoring in economics; Shannon Albeke, an associate research scientist with UW’s Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center; Joshua Viers, a professor and director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society at the University of California-Merced; and George Parsons, a professor in the School of Marine Science and Policy at the University of Delaware.
“This is my first grant since joining UW as a new assistant professor in fall 2018, so this is an important early milestone for my transition to externally funded research in an academic setting,” Newbold says.