Granite Geek: A Citizen-Scientist App for Reporting Algae Blooms

Sep 6, 2016

Credit Texas A&M AgriLife

Algae blooms in lakes and ponds across northern New England are becoming more and more common. These can kill fish and cause terrible odors. Now there’s an app to track these blooms. BloomWatch allows users to easily report when they know of a pond that has suddenly blossomed with microscopic bacteria. Granite Geek David Brooks has been writing about the app for his column this week in The Concord Monitor and he spoke with NHPR’s All Things Considered host Peter Biello.

What kind of information does this app collect?

It’s pretty much kind of a standard information collecting app that is actually becoming not quite routine but not quite so unusual as it used to be. You can basically take a picture and write a description and upload a geographic link and send it to a database. It’s been set up by the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal agency. The New Hampshire DES is also part of it, as are some other folks.

So, you go down to the beach, you say, “Look at the lake today! Yuck!” You take a picture of it, put a little note saying, "I didn’t notice this until this morning. I think it’s an algae bloom." It gets geo-tagged and uploaded.

But users shouldn’t expect their reports to summon a team of scientists to come clean up the pond, correct?

They will parachute from above as soon as you hit the send button! No, unfortunately. This is a classic citizen-science project in the sense of giving a tool to laymen like you and me out there who can use this tool to gather information that then will be made use of by researchers trying to figure out what to do about it, whether it’s getting worse, what are the circumstances under which it’s getting worse. Is it always happening in lakes with this particular kind of run-off or a particular temperature? Is it in this geographic area but not that geographic area? It’s very much information-providing.

There’s also an enhanced version of the app that actually comes with a kit. Tell us about that.

That’s one of the things that’s interesting about this. There’s CyanoScope and CyanoMonitoring and each one of those requires buying some equipment. CyanoScope comes, oddly enough, with a microscope and equipment for gathering a sample of it. So if you go down, you say, “Yuck,” there’s the stuff, you  take a picture of it. And, if you’ve already signed up and gotten online training and you bought the equipment (which is a few hundred dollars) you can take a sample, look at it under the microscope, and take a picture. Then the scientist may know the exact species, because there are a good dozen kinds of bacteria that cause the algae blooms in New Hampshire, and that is more of the information they need.

Then you could go up to CyanoMonitoring, which is even more expensive, but CyanoScope is a few hundred bucks. It could be bought by a lake association and then several people from the lake association would be trained on how to use it. CyanoMonitoring is another step up. It might be bought by a city or even a government agency.

What do scientists hope to do with this information?

They can correlate it and say that a lake that has this type of geology in this type of circumstances in this kind of weather has this kind of an algae problem with this particular species—that’s related to this kind of runoff.

They’ll know, for example, to tackle development around this lake, as compared to leaking septic systems. Right now it’s hard to tackle a problem that could have many different sources. The more information you have, the better chance you have to do something to it.

You quote Hilary Snook, an environmental scientist in Massachusetts, as saying that people with “skin in the game” are going to be the people most likely to participate in this citizen science endeavor. But I think some would argue that we all have some skin in the game—perhaps not as much as those people who live close enough to smell an algae bloom—but we all have some, don’t we?

Oh, you bet. Of course we do. I mean, that’s part of why we live in New Hampshire, right? It’s a pretty place to be and you know that even if you almost never do it, you could possibly go paddling in the lake tomorrow if you wanted to. If they’re all disgusting and foul, you won’t want to. So we all have skin in the game.

I think he was referring specifically to the people who are most directly affected, and that is a good way to approach a lot of citizen science. Those are the people who are most likely to take action.