Environment

Dangerous Algal Blooms Threaten U.S. Waters

The nation's water systems are increasingly at risk of nutrient pollution.

Photo Credit: Chris Deacutis/Flickr CC

As we enjoy the last of summer, I find myself reflecting on the last few months with bittersweet memories. While swimming in the Pacific Ocean and sailing on Lake Champlain, Vermont, I have enjoyed the best our water resources have to offer. News reports across the U.S., however, have been a reminder that our water systems are increasingly at risk of nutrient pollution.

Algal bloom on Lake Erie. (image: Peter Essick, National Geographic/Resource Out of Place Visualization 2015)

North Carolina’s Chowan River, the Great Lakes and the entire Pacific coast have experienced hazardous algal blooms this year that have prevented recreational activity, threatened the health of aquatic species and even endangered the health of communities living along these waterways.

I cannot imagine, and do not want, a future where our water is too polluted to enjoy the gifts it brings our lives.

Changing the course of our water future requires a collaborative approach that informs and empowers everyone—from national leaders and scientists to community groups and individual citizens. While efforts like the U.S. Open Water Data Initiative are championing unprecedented transparency of water information, there is a need to translate the complex science behind water data into tangible and accessible opportunities to increase the general public’s understanding of the state of water in the U.S.

With today’s innovative technology achievements, we know its possible to bring the power of storytelling and the science of water data together to inform communities and disturb the water management status quo.

Helicopter view of a dense green macroalgal bloom (either Ulva or Enteromorpha) in Buttonwoods Cove, Warwick, Rhode Island. (image: Chris Deacutis, Integration and Application Network/Flickr CC)

The U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Blue Legacy International hosted the 2015 Visualizing Nutrients Challenge where solvers produced creative and compelling interpretations of nutrient water data demonstrating the possibilities for communicating risks, impacts and solutions related to nutrient pollution.

The visualization created by Matthew Seibert, Benjamin Wellington and Eric Roy of Landscape Metrics won the first price in the challenge for its interactive tutorial about algal blooms on Lake Erie, a water body that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts will see algae growth this year that could rival the record-setting 2011 bloom.

Between government policy and engagement like the Visualizing Nutrients Challenge, momentum is building and public awareness of water issues is improving. Now is the time to come together around kitchen counters, in city halls and across conference tables to take collective action toward a more sustainable water future that is championed by each and every one of us.

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A National Geographic "Emerging Explorer," filmmaker and globally recognized advocate on water issues, Alexandra Cousteau continues the work of her renowned grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau and her father Philippe Cousteau, Sr. In 2008, she launched the non-profit Blue Legacy International project to “empower people to reclaim and restore the world's water, one community at a time.”

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