Citizen Scientists Track Algal Blooms

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are a global problem.

HABs can pose a serious risk to human health.

Algae are natural components of marine and fresh water flora that perform many roles vital for the health of ecosystems. Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are of special concern because of their potential impacts on drinking, fishing, and recreational waters.

General aviation (GA) pilots functioning as citizen scientists can help develop an early warning system to alert communities of ensuing algal bloom along the coastline.

Private GA Pilots

There are 600,000 private pilots in the U.S. and over 200,000 general aviation (GA) aircraft. A fraction of this untapped resource can be used to study water quality scientific issues in aquatic systems.

Citizen Science

Scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or nonprofessional scientists. This may include crowd-sourced science, community engaged science, or networked science.

A Global Problem

Chinese soldiers remove blue-green algae from a beach in Qingdao, China.

China's Algae Problem Swamps the Olympics

Chinese soldiers remove blue-green algae from a beach in Qingdao, eastern China, 2008. (Credit: Ng Han Guan, AP)

Residents of Toledo, Ohio, line up for water on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014.

Water Emergency for Toledo, Ohio in 2014

Residents of Toledo, Ohio, line up for water on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. (Credit: Jetta Fraser, AP)

The Great Lakes

U.S. Great Lakes system as seen from space by SeaWiFS satellite. (Credit: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE)

Algae blooms pose serious problems to human health, fish, and recreation industry.

The economic damage to commercial fishing is $100 million and rising due to climate change (NOAA).

How You Can Get Involved


  • Obtain high resolution aerial images and videos
  • Fly over potentially impacted waterways


  • Study plume and sedimentation dynamics, harmful algal blooms (HABs) initiation and distribution, algal mat structures, and Langmuir circulation and identify “hot” areas of concern.
  • Make data publicly available to students, teachers, researchers, water-quality managers, and policy makers.
  • Help develop empirical scientific models leading to next steps in predicting a HAB event.


  • Use the photos and results to educate in water quality issues and the dangers of harmful algal bloom outbreaks to human health
  • Ask students to come up with innovative solutions for the future


  • Use simple cell phone cameras in your area, if safely possible, to shoot and compare their photos with aerial data

Members of the Public

  • Help generate awareness of your environment

Photo Gallery

Western Lake Erie Shoreline and Islands.

Arial images taken at 3000 feet altitude. Select image to view larger. 

Image Comparison

Regular color image (RGB) compared with infrared (IR) of Lake Erie Western basin at Maumee River and Old Woman Creek, Ohio.

Typical Data Example

Changes in water quality over time at Lake Erie western basin from July 5 – 25, 2014.

Video Gallery

Fluid, Plume and Sedimentation Dynamics

Black River Flowing into Lake Erie

Depositing silt and sediment containing nitrogen and phosphorous.

Huron River Sediment Plume

High nutrient loading/turbidity (phosphorus and nitrogen)

Marblehead Plume

Precursor to algae formation and harmful algae blooms (Microcystis/Lyngbya). Opportunity for students and teachers to engage in new & interesting science studies.

Open Water Field Testing for Water Quality

ODNR Boat, Avon Lake, Black River, Lorain, Sandusky, Kelley’s Island

Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) boat and researchers

Submersible Rover (OpenROV)

Submersible rover (OpenROV) for on-site measurements of water conductivity, total dissolved solids, and temperature depth profile, underwater imaging, and transmission of red, green, blue light

Underwater Rover Images

September 2014

Lorain 9-17-2014

Lorain lake floor

Lorain 9-17-2014 (2)

Lorain algal bloom mats

Kelly's Island 9-19-2014

Kelly’s Island, invasive quagga and zebra mussels.

What’s New

Off-the-shelf cameras now have built-in GPS so accurate geo-referencing is easier. 

Examples of Geo-referencing

Google satellite image showing a location on the coast of Lake Erie

Google Satellite Map

Aerial photo of location from previous photo

Aerial Photo of Location on Satellite Map

March 2016 Flight Data

March 2016 Flight Data

Flight Track from Cleveland to Toledo

Flight Track from Cleveland to Toledo

Still Images Geo-tagging

Still Images Geo-tagging. Your area of interest just a mouse click away.


Terry Schubert, M.Ed
Citizen Scientist & Educator, Editor, Central States Association Newsletter, Cleveland, Ohio

Rafat Ansari, Ph.D., Citizen Scientist
NASA Glenn Research Center (Retired)

Amy Kaminski, Ph.D.
Senior Policy Advisor
NASA Office of the Chief Scientist

Project Team

Co-principal Investigators

  • Liane Guild, Ph.D., NASA Ames Research Center
  • Joe Ortiz, Ph.D., Kent State University
  • Pete Clapham, Ph.D., Cleveland State University
  • Heather Raymond, Ohio EPA

Lead Pilot Coordinator

  • Terry Schubert, M.Ed, Lake Erie, Ohio

Partners & Collaborators

Civil Air Patrol

John W. Desmarais, Sr.
HQ CAP Director of Operations
U.S. Air Force Auxiliary
877-227-9142 x301

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Lesley V. D’Anglada, Dr.P.H., M.E.H
Office of Science and Technology, Office of Water

Susan Keydel
CA Watersheds and Nonpoint Source-319 Coordinator

Rochelle Labiosa, Ph.D.
Office of Water and Watersheds

Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI)

Colin Brooks
Senior Research Scientist
Manager of Environmental Science Laboratory
3600 Green Court, Suite 100
Ann Arbor, MI 48105
Office Phone: 734-913-6858

Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP)

Steven J. Steinberg, Ph.D., GISP
Principal Scientist – Information Management and Analysis

State Water Resources Control Board

Erick Burres
Senior Environmental Scientist (Specialist)
Clean Water Team – Citizen Monitoring Coordinator

More Information

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Roles & Expectations of Citizen Science Pilots

  • Citizen scientist pilots and airplane owners are volunteers — not guided, supported, or paid by NASA.
  • Each pilot is fully responsible for the safe operation of their aircraft. Mounting system hardware for their imaging system by following air-frame manufacturing or FAA guidelines and regulations.
  • Pilots are free to choose their own flight paths and flight plans.
  • NASA or the project shall not pay for any pilot services, such as aircraft maintenance, hangar rent, or fuel.