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Satellite-imaging technology developed in northwest Ohio could be key to solving a problem that has long plagued environmentalists trying to get ahead of the toxic algal blooms that have poisoned waterways across the world.
Scientists widely recognize that algal blooms — including the current one in Lake Erie — are fueled by high levels of phosphorus and other fertilizers that have made their way into the water. However, it’s difficult to trace where those nutrients are coming from.
“We all know it’s phosphorus that’s the Miracle-Gro of cyanobacteria,” said Milt Baker, chief executive officer of Blue Water Satellite Inc. “It’s being dumped into lakes, it’s coming off of farm-field runoff, combined sewer overflows, and leaky septic systems, but we don’t know where. We have that answer here.”
Using public satellite data and complex, proprietary algorithms, the Toledo firm can identify and measure a host of things, including water temperature, algal blooms, and phosphorus levels without ever setting foot in the field. Officials say their data have proved as accurate as traditionally collected field samples.
“We’ve moved the laboratory to the sky,” Mr. Baker said.
A number of universities and government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are experimenting with similar technology, but Blue Water claims to be the only commercial provider. That’s difficult to verify, but experts said know of no other companies doing what Blue Water does.
The science behind the process is the tendency of chemical compounds and organic matter to reflect a different light spectrum in a specific and identifiable way. That data is captured within satellite images, which are then processed by Blue Water.
Robert Vincent, a retired geologist at Bowling Green State University, began researching that possibility in 2002 and published a paper on it in 2004. He received a patent in 2005 for his method of finding and measuring phycocyanin-pigmented algae and cyanobacteria and since has developed ways to find and measure other materials.
Mr. Vincent said his methods differ from what others are doing because his can accurately measure bacteria, not just show where the algal blooms are.
“When you start having that kind of quantitative measure, you can use it for a lot more things than if you’re just getting an image from NASA that’s in the visibility range and just looking at it,” he said. “There’s nothing quantitative about that.”
Mr. Vincent partnered with Mr. Baker to start Blue Water. He later resigned from the board but remains a stockholder. The patents are held by BGSU and licensed to Blue Water Satellite.
Blue Water has 10 employees and will double that number soon. The firm has a client list that includes one of the world’s six largest oil firms, large utilities, and top environmental monitoring firms. Officials wouldn’t disclose annual revenues, but they say sales are up tenfold since the firm’s first year in 2009.
While it is partially funded by the Rocket Ventures venture capital fund, Mr. Baker said he believes Blue Water can be a $50 million company in five years.
“The things you can do with this are almost limitless,” he said. “The big problem for us is we have to make sure we prioritize those based on what is going to be the best business proposition.”
Right now, much of that focus is on Lake Erie.
Toledo’s recent water crisis opened eyes around the country, illustrating just how real of a threat microcystin and other algae-produced toxins can be.
Experts say the ability to remotely monitor the progression and concentration of those outbreaks is an important tool in learning how to combat the problem.
“That is an area of tremendous amount of science and technology development right now, trying to be able to use a variety of remote sense platforms, software, and related technology to be able to detect levels of nutrients and other materials on the water’s surface,” said Patrick Lawrence, chairman of the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toledo.
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Remote sensing isn’t new, however. Mr. Vincent‘s history with the science dates to 1966 when, as a young Air Force officer, he joined a team trying to learn more about the moon.
“One of our jobs was to look for the best place to have a military base on the moon,” he said. “We were trying to determine the composition of the surface of the moon.”
Though no base was built, their findings were validated. “It turns out after the guys landed there several times and took samples in those places, we turned out to be correct,” he said.
A solidly terrestrial issue, Lake Erie’s problems are well known to scientists. They know where and when the algal blooms tend to occur, and they know that the Maumee River is one of the key pipelines that’s pumping phosphorus into the lake.
But determining the precise sources of phosphorus across a watershed thousands of square miles in size is nearly impossible.
“It’s very hard over such a large area to be able to have accurate measurements or have enough data stations or filed measures,” Mr. Lawrence said. “That’s a huge challenge.”
Blue Water’s method takes five measurements per acre, though with higher resolution satellites they could collect as many as 1,000 measurements per acre.
Though the services aren't cheap, Mr. Baker said there’s no way traditional ground testing can compete with remote monitoring.
“It doesn't matter how many of those ground samples you dig up, whether it’s 100, 1,000, or 10,000, you just don’t know anything,” he said.
Jay Martin, a professor of ecological engineering at Ohio State University, is not familiar with Blue Water Satellite, but said the ability to track phosphorus could prove very useful. Though it’s clear much of Lake Erie’s nutrient load comes via the Maumee, it‘s not so clear where the Maumee picks up the phosphorus.
“If you could use satellite data to track the concentrations in the rivers or in the streams even, that would be tremendously helpful,” Mr. Martin said.
He also said being able to monitor outbreaks of algal toxins or E. coli by satellite could help improve public health by allowing authorities to better predict which beaches might be affected.
A new generation of less expensive, high-resolution satellites and emerging drone technology could make Blue Water’s abilities even more significant. Officials also say Google, which owns a drone-and-satellite company, has expressed some interest in what they are doing. A meeting is set up for this week in California.
Mr. Baker believes what happened in Toledo will help shape discussion and thinking about how to fix Lake Erie and how these problems are addressed in the future.
“Lake Erie has been getting worse for 20 years. We’ve spent billions of dollars trying to clean up Lake Erie, and it’s gotten worse,” he said. “What that tells me is all the things we’ve been trying are not working, and we need to try new things.”
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: email@example.com or 419-724-6134.