Imagination Station Scientist monitoring Lake Erie

BGSU is harnessing power of citizen-engaged science to monitor harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie

Imagination Station one of several BGSU partners helping test water

By Bob Cunningham ’18

Bowling Green State University is harnessing the power of citizen-engaged science to help its researchers monitor the toxic algal blooms in western Lake Erie.

This MERHAB (Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms) project is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is a partnership between BGSU, the University of Toledo, Ohio State University, University of Michigan Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, NOAA and LightDeck Diagnostics and is putting a relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use rapid cyanotoxin detection technology into the hands of citizen scientists and water managers so they can go to a station, take a sample of water, extract it and analyze it right there on-site.

BGSU has loaned equipment to citizen science partners in Ohio and New York: Imagination Station, Old Woman Creek NERR, Maumee Bay State Park Managers, Toledo Metroparks, Cleveland Metroparks, Cleveland Water Alliance, SUNY Fredonia and the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeepers.

“The great thing about citizen science is that we have a lot of people who want to be part of the solution,” Dr. Timothy Davis, the Patrick L. & Debra (Scheetz) Ryan Endowed Professor in BGSU’s Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences. “They want to help; they want to be involved in the research. It's important because the more people know about what we're doing to help save Lake Erie and the Great Lakes, the more they understand and the better and more informed decisions they can make."

Imagination Station Scientist testing Lake Erie water

“The idea is that we can't be out on the lake every day but by partnering with citizens who want to be part of the science, we can fill in those gaps. People are out on the water a lot and so as long as they have the resources and proper training then they take a sample.”

BGSU researchers typically test waters in Sandusky Bay weekly during the summer, Davis said.

“We know there's a lot that happens in between testing days out on the lake because it's really dynamic,” he said. “So, for us to be able to start getting information from people around the lake, that's an amazing opportunity, quite frankly, to provide us with data that we need to help validate some of the toxin forecast models that are being developed for western Lake Erie.”

The annual NOAA forecast predicts how severe the algal bloom is going to be and where the bloom biomass will be located in Lake Erie.  

“What we can't do right now is forecast bloom toxin concentrations,” Davis said. “We don't have that capability yet, but we're working toward it and citizen science is going to help us get there. Conditions in the lake can change so rapidly that a once-a-week sampling with citizen science filling in the gaps with these extra data points help us to better validate and develop more accurate toxin concentration forecast models.”

Monitoring the Maumee River

Imagination Station is located in downtown Toledo on the banks of the Maumee River, a few miles before it drains into Lake Erie — a perfect spot to test the water.

Amanda Miller, who has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, is the tinkering coordinator at the science museum. She enjoys being able to contribute to this project — “I happen to have an awesome sampling spot right outside our building,” she said.

Miller, who has been interested in water conservation since grade school, typically takes water samples from the river on Sunday mornings before the museum opens to the public. She uses a long rod with a plastic container fastened to the end, dips it in the river and collects the sample.

She then takes the sample to her office and runs it through the equipment on loan from BGSU, adds pertinent data such as time, date and location and emails the information to the University.

“It's really awesome and I like being able to educate people that this is something that we are part of and that we're helping with real-life science that's affecting our lives right now,” Miller said. “We do science at Imagination every single day, but this adds a life connection that we can all relate to.”

Miller wants to do her part to help water quality in the Greater Toledo region.

“It’s super important for Lake Erie,” she said. “The Toledo water crisis in the summer of 2014 affected everyone and just a few years ago we had the algal blooms turn the Maumee River green right outside our building. I want to be a part of the solution.”

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Media Contact | Michael Bratton | | 419-372-6349