Two new NASA tools will help track toxic algae blooms

Although algae are crucial elements of aquatic ecosystems, their rapid and unchecked growth can cause a variety of environmental, economic, and health issues. 
Loukia Papadopoulos
The southern tip of Florida filled with algae blooms.jpg
The southern tip of Florida filled with algae blooms.


Algae blooms are unavoidable natural phenomena that take place in aquatic environments like lakes, rivers, and oceans when algae experience an exponential expansion. Although algae are crucial elements of aquatic ecosystems, their rapid and unchecked growth can cause a variety of environmental, economic, and health issues. 

To attempt to reduce the damage caused by these growths, NASA has been testing new satellite-based tools since 2020.

This is according to a press release by the space agency published on Wednesday.

The first instrument, called TROPOMI, or TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument, was able to peer through thin clouds to uncover significant clues about Karenia brevis (or K. brevis), the algae responsible for some disastrous 2020 blooms near Tampa Bay.

2,000 tonnes of dead marine life

Around 2,000 tonnes of dead marine life were attributed to this series of huge algal blooms along Florida's west coast. The human costs were just as severe, with a reported significant increase in asthma cases in the counties of Sarasota and Pinellas and estimated losses of $1 billion in various economic sectors, from fishing to tourism.

K. brevis is responsible for harmful algal blooms in coastal waters, mainly in the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast of the United States. K. brevis is known to produce a group of potent neurotoxins called brevetoxins.

When waves crash on the shore, the algae cells are broken and the poisons can be discharged into the nearby water and air. Brevetoxins that have been aerosolized can then cause respiratory irritation and other health issues in people. In addition, these algae create poisons that can hurt and even kill fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, and other aquatic life. 

TROPOMI may now help. Federal authorities and local communities can use TROPOMI's improved capacity to "see" and measure fine wavelengths of light in order to more effectively forecast and control dangerous outbreaks of K. brevis and other algae blooms. 

Another tool

And that’s not the only instrument NASA has in its toolkit. An additional ocean color instrument, set to be deployed in early 2024, will also help track and possibly combat algae blooms. PACE, or Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem, is a NASA mission that will use far more wavelengths than previous sensors to examine phytoplankton and other ocean biology, atmospheric aerosols, and clouds. 

The appearance of toxic algae, the boom-bust cycle of fisheries, and other variables that have an impact on commercial industries can all be predicted with the use of this tool.

“For nearly 20 years, ocean color sensors have been foundational for satellite monitoring of harmful algal blooms,” said lead author Kelly Luis, a NASA postdoctoral program fellow at JPL. “This application of TROPOMI red SIF demonstrates how the combination of satellite technologies can bolster early warning systems beyond clear sky conditions.”

Algae blooms are a complicated environmental problem with serious repercussions. For preventative and coping measures to be put in place, it is crucial to comprehend their sources and effects. We can work to prevent and mitigate the negative consequences of algal blooms on our aquatic ecosystems, water quality, and public health by investing in monitoring and treatment technologies.