SANTA CRUZ -- High-tech robots will warn us when blooms of toxic algae threaten the coast of California. A team of scientists led by researchers at UC Santa Cruz is deploying gliding underwater robots and sensitive underwater labs to identify where and when blooms begin.
The blooms can devastate coastal regions, environmentally and economically, by killing off shellfish that are vital to the food chain and to fisheries.
Researchers will develop an early warning system to forecast blooms before they reach shore. The team, including researchers at seven institutions, received a grant of $800,000 from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration for the first year of the planned five-year, $4.3 million project.
"We're finally at the point where the instruments and the technology are available to do this work," said project leader Raphael Kudela, an ocean sciences researcher at UCSC.
The project will use sophisticated statistical models, satellite data and two different kinds of robots to collect data in Monterey Bay and in Southern California.
Automated robotic gliders will sample salinity, temperature and chlorophyll levels in the water. The gliders operate on batteries that can last months at a time. "Environmental Sample Processors" developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute will also help. "The ESP is a lab in a can," Kudela said. The robot is stationary, he said, taking in water and sampling for toxins and organisms.
With both robots, researchers hope to get a big-picture look at what is happening and where and location specific information when toxic events occur.
The main cause of harmful algal blooms is a handful of species of Pseudo-nitzschia. The algae create a potent toxin called domoic acid, which accumulates in shellfish. The toxin can sicken people and animals who consume the poison-infused mollusks.
Kudela said that having two study locations helps to tease apart the causes of toxic blooms. "Southern California has a lot more human input," Kudela said. "At Monterey Bay we have a more pristine environment with a lot more agricultural input."
Data collected over the long term can indicate if the increased algal blooms in the last few years are due to long-term changes, including climate change, he said.
"We're hoping to see if it is long-term change related to the warming of the Pacific or to El Niño," Kudela said. "If we see exactly the same thing in both Southern and Northern California, it suggests bigger scale changes are responsible."
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