Using LANDSAT to expand the historical record of phytoplankton blooms in Lake Erie

Friday, 19 December 2014
Jeff C Ho, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, United States, Anna M Michalak, Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington, DC, United States, Richard P Stumpf, NOAA Natl Ocean Service, Silver Spring, MD, United States and Thomas B Bridgeman, University of Toledo, Toledo, OH, United States
Freshwater harmful algal blooms are occurring with increasing frequency worldwide, intensifying the need for deeper understanding of the processes driving bloom formation. Such understanding is a prerequisite for developing management strategies for limiting bloom occurrence. Unfortunately, however, data for developing robust predictive models of bloom formation are lacking. Even in the well-studied Lake Erie, where diatom and cyanobacteria blooms have occurred for several decades in the Western Basin, previous in-situ and remote-sensing data collection efforts have been hampered by spatial and temporal sampling limitations, resulting in a sparse historical record. Leveraging available data to expand the historical record of algal blooms would thus make it possible to better evaluate hypotheses about factors influencing bloom formation.

In this work, remotely-sensed observations of phytoplankton obtained using LANDSAT imagery are presented for 1984-2011. Several phytoplankton detection algorithms based on LANDSAT 5 imagery are evaluated during the period also covered by MERIS (2002-2011), which offers a relatively detailed assessment of bloom occurrence over the last decade. The best algorithm is then applied to historical LANDSAT data, and results are used to obtain new information about historical conditions and assess implications for developing improved models of bloom formation.

Estimates of historical bloom occurrence and bloom seasonality shed new light on the widely-held view that phosphorus controls and invasive mussels resulted in substantial bloom reductions in the early 1990s. The new estimated records are not consistent with limited in-situ phytoplankton measurements from that period, and provide additional information on bloom occurrence during years with little to no supporting literature. This work demonstrates the potential to unearth new insights about historical phytoplankton blooms in Lake Erie, as well as in freshwater lakes broadly, and is a step forward in supporting efforts to prepare for, and ultimately prevent, future blooms of harmful algae.