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Researchers Develop Predictive Tool to Track When, Where and Why Blue-Green Algae Occur in Florida

Story by
Trisha Radulovich
ahmadisharaf and ye
Civil engineer and RIDER Center faculty member Ebrahim Ahmadisharaf (left) will work with co-investigator Ming Ye (right), a professor in the Florida State University Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science, to build a tool that may help predict harmful blue-green algal blooms in Florida waters. (M Wallheiser/FAMU-FSU Engineering)

It’s another sunny day in Florida, and the Florida Department of Health issues another health alert for the presence of toxins related to blue-green algae in a lake. The foul-smelling, toxic algal blooms are becoming more common in the state’s freshwater ecosystems. They are increasingly affecting coastal areas, where polluted freshwater and saltwater mix. 

Harmful toxic blooms (HABs) aren’t new. Spanish explorers even recorded seeing the phenomenon in Florida as early as the 1500s. However, over the last 40 years, reports have increased. Like its saltwater nemesis Red Tide, blue-green algae is a problem and Florida has taken notice. 

Researchers at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering will soon be working with the state to find solutions. In a new study beginning in August 2022, scientists at the college will develop a quantitative method to predict where, when and why HABs like blue-green algae occur. 

Civil engineer and RIDER Center faculty member Ebrahim Ahmadisharaf will work with co-investigator Ming Ye, a professor in the Florida State University Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science, on the study. The focus of the research is the coastal areas of the Florida Panhandle.

“We will use historical data and various drivers like topography and climate to develop numerical scripts to evaluate the vulnerability of coastal areas,” Ahmadisharaf says. “Different conditions like storms, hot days, land development and sea-level rise are some of the variables that we are looking at.”

Ye explains, “Earth system science can help us understand the environmental and anthropogenic processes that control HABs.” 

The demand for a predictive tool to evaluate blue-green algae along the coast stems from the need for more precision on where and when HABs will appear. 

Using a numeric tool, the researchers will bring together data from different sources. A powerhouse of statistics sourced through scripts can be embedded in a graphical user interface such as Python, a programming language. 

Scripts are a tool that can determine and predict the appearance of HABs more accurately than other methods. The researchers say the information will proactively prevent and mitigate a HAB problem before a disaster occurs.

“A quantitative tool generates quantitative values,” Ahmadisharaf said. “Rather than coming up with predictions based on highs or lows, our tool will generate actual numbers and be more accurate than what we currently use.”

By developing numerical scripts based on all the variables for HABs, the researchers hope to create a flexible tool that applies not only to the Florida Panhandle but to any coastal area of the state.

The researchers are working with local counties and cities across the Northwest Florida and state government agencies and communities. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is funding the $363,000 project for 18 months.