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Bloomin’ Algae: a citizen science app to track algal blooms

July 7, 2017
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The Bloomin’ Algae app’s algae ID guide. Image: CEH

Blooms of blue-green algae can occur through the summer and early autumn in UK lakes and slow flowing rivers, particularly when nutrient concentrations are high, and there has been sunny, warm weather.

Whilst algal blooms occur naturally, they can be exacerbated by human pressures, particularly nutrient pollution. We have previously written about the negative ecological effects of algal blooms – such as hypoxia. However, some blooms may also produce toxins which are directly harmful to humans and animals.

A free new app called Bloomin’ Algae has been designed to allow people to record algal blooms in their local freshwater environments. The app, produced by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology with input from Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Public Health England and Health Protection Scotland, enables users to submit a photo of an algal bloom and note the recreational activities that takes place at its location.

These ‘citizen science‘ recordings of algal blooms are plotted on an interactive map, which allows water managers to track and mitigate their potential health risks to people and animals.

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An algal bloom on Loch Leven in Scotland. Image: CEH

Professor Laurence Carvalho, a freshwater ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (and MARS project partner) who specialises in the study of algal blooms and water quality, helped develop the app with his colleagues.

Professor Carvalho said, “Algal blooms can be a major health hazard as they commonly produce potent toxins that can result in people experiencing skin rashes, eye irritations, fever, muscle pain and worse. They can also be a significant hazard to animals; dog owners and farmers need to ensure their pets or livestock do not drink from waters affected by blue-green algae.

People can download the app from Android and Apple app stores and if they then come across an algal bloom, they can use the app to send us a photo and details of its location. We will then alert UK environment and health agencies so they can take appropriate action.”

Blue-green algae are microscopic but can clump together in ‘colonies’ up to a few millimetres in size during blooms. These colonies can rise to the surface to form thin wispy green blooms or thick paint-like scums. Algal blooms which pose a toxic health risk to humans and animals are known as ‘harmful algal blooms’ or ‘HABS’.

Mr Kazlauskis, the mobile developer on the project, said, “The app offers an algal guide to help people familiarise themselves with what an algal bloom looks like. Due to integration with the Biological Record Centre’s iRecord system, all verified records can easily be viewed on the Bloomin’ Algae interactive map.”

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The Bloomin’ Algae app gives users visual references for identifying algal blooms, and a platform to geolocate them. Image: CEH

The Bloomin’ Algae app allows water managers and scientists to track and manage potentially-harmful algal blooms in UK freshwaters, and to provide subsequent ‘early warning’ messages to the public about sites which may pose a health risk.

In addition, it is hoped to provide an ongoing geographical indication of the different users of freshwater environments – anglers, walkers, birdwatchers and so on – and how their activities are affected by algal blooms.

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Download Bloomin’ Algae for Apple and Android devices.

Find out more about iRecord on the Biological Record Centre website.

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