Developing forecasts is part of the effort to manage blooms. Forecasts would let institutions prepare for the events, at the very least. Researchers have been able develop various techniques for forecasting algae blooms, such as combining satellite imagery with computer simulations. They have been able to use satellite images of the Lake Erie bloom to determine how the bloom might spread, move, or shrink. But that requires the bloom to be visible in space.
Anderson and his colleagues also sample mud in the Gulf of Maine every fall and look for the algal organisms when they are in their dormant phase. "And that turns out to a be a hugely important indicator of how severe the next year is going to be," he said. "That kind of forecasting, seasonal forecasting, has for us been very accurate."
But algae bloom researchers lack the field instruments that would enable them to have the same kind of accuracy and texture as weather forecasts.
"We have the same physics, the same models, but what we don't have are the dense observations from weather stations everywhere," Anderson said. "It is a big push in our field, a big push in oceanography in general to be instrumenting the ocean much, much more, so that we can do that kind of forecasting."
Another solution that has worked elsewhere in the world is spraying clay on affected areas. Clay is a natural substance — it doesn't pollute — and works by dragging the algae down to the bottom of a body of water, and essentially destroying or burying it.
But dumping or spraying compounds to kill off a cloud of algae moving through the water is far more difficult than spraying a field of vegetables, Anderson said. There are strategies available but they could use more research. And environmental restrictions have made it harder to adopt in the United States.
However, Anderson said the field needs more funding. Even as the problem grows, the amount of federal money available for harmful algal bloom research has been cut.
"We are running on fumes," Anderson said. Years ago, there was about $22 million of government funding available to the community of scientists who study blooms. Now, it is more like $9 million, he said.