A team at Laurentian University is using planes to detect toxic algae blooms around Sudbury

From collecting samples to pushing alerts, making the public aware of blue-green algae blooms can take up to a week. A team of researchers from Laurentian University is trying to bring that down to minutes. 

Their proposal is to equip planes that are scouting for forest fires in Northern Ontario with sensors capable of detecting the algae.

MAG Aerospace has been contracted by the Ministry of Natural Resources to find and fight forest fires, based out of a hangar at the Sudbury airport.

“That’s aircraft flying all over northern Ontario, almost every day during the summer months,” Greg Ross of Health Sciences North and Laurentian University said.

“Our proposal is to equip those aircraft to actually be multiple purpose.”

Blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria, creates a variety of toxins that can cause skin irritation on contact and more severe symptoms when ingested. It is the suspected cause of some recent pet fatalities. 

When algae blooms are not present, the water in Lake Nipissing is a dark blue. (Matthew Pierce/CBC)

Spotting the danger

Flying above the west arm of Lake Nipissing, Ross points out some murky water. “Our goal is that somebody swimming in that water down below us could go to a website and see whether they should be concerned or not”

On Friday morning in Musky Bay, there was cause for concern.

“I hope to hell the people aren’t swimming in there,” Ross said, “most of those cottages are going to be taking water straight in from standpipes that go out from the shore.”

Water with an active blue-green algae bloom has the appearance of pea-soup. As the wind and waves concentrate it against the shore it becomes soupy in consistency as well. 

Cyanobacteria exists naturally in fresh water and can be transmitted between unconnected water systems on the fur and feathers of wildlife, by boats or even wind.

“When it’s not blooming it’s not a problem,” Ross said. 

Blooms, an explosion in algae population, can occur naturally but happen more frequently when certain factors are present. 

“We already know a very modest increase in temperatures makes the problem a lot worse,” he said. Also, algae feed on nutrients in the water and nutrient levels are being increased by human and agricultural activities. 

Greg Ross has been collecting thermal and optical data on cyanobacteria from planes for a year. (Matthew Pierce/CBC)

In April, Ross was appointed vice president of academic and research impact at Health Sciences North. He’s also a professor of biology at Laurentian University and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

He and his research team use optical spectrometers, highly sensitive cameras, to look for cyanobacteria in water. 

Blue-green algae and its non-toxic relative green algae are identical to the naked eye, but reflect minutely different wavelengths of light that can be detected by the equipment.  

As the planes fly over a body of water the sensors collect terabytes of data on what is below them. All the data is tied to a specific location using GPS. 

“It will even account for the slight rocking of an aircraft and correct the GPS position on the ground” Ross said, “these cameras are accurate probably within a metre.”

The team’s optical spectrometer can detect the difference between green and blue-green algae by what light it reflects. (Nathaniel Gryska/Laurentian University)

Right now, Ross and his team are working on automating how all that data is interpreted. Once that is complete they hope to make it available to the public in a way that’s easy to digest and act on.

“It’s a natural process and will never be eliminated, but it’s a big problem for no good reason right now,” Ross said.

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