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NASA scientist seeks pilots to help monitor toxic algal blooms

SALT LAKE CITY — A NASA scientist is leading an all-volunteer effort in his free time, hoping to recruit general aviation pilots and turn them into an early warning system for toxic algal blooms.

The effort has caught the attention of the Utah Division of Water Quality, which last year struggled with the effects of a large bloom of blue-green algae on Utah Lake.

“There’s a lot of potential to use their flight times or even just their interest for flying as a way to gather data,” DWQ environmental scientist Ben Holcomb said.

Pilots who are interested in taking part must fund the flights and equipment themselves. That includes mounting commercially-available cameras to their aircraft, then flying over waterways. Imagery gathered is geo-tagged.

“You can overlay them really easily on any existing map and know exactly where those images were taken,” Holcomb said.

Scientists also have software that’s capable of estimating concentrations of toxins in the water, based on the imagery. High levels of blue-green algae can prove hazardous to humans and animals. In the case of Utah Lake’s bloom in 2016, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and Utah County Health Department were forced to close the lake to boaters as a precaution.

Holcomb believes the effort, which is not formally endorsed by NASA, could help prevent such situations in the future.

“Great opportunity for us because we get high-quality data that we can use and that really comes at very little cost,” Holcomb said.