Stay in the know about wildlife, water quality, and ecosystems on Sanibel and Captiva Islands and in Southwest Florida

New Tools Seek to Transform Red Tide Management

May 4, 2023
water sampling gulf

The SCCF Marine Lab is leading the field campaign for a water sampling effort that is informing a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence transformer model to better manage the water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee. Sample analyses are incorporated into model simulations to help identify the drivers of harmful algal blooms (HABs) and set targets for needed water quality improvements.

water sampling in gulf

SCCF is collaborating with the University of Florida (UF) Center for Coastal Solutions (CSS) and other UF researchers to guide water managers in delivering freshwater while minimizing the negative impacts of nutrient loads from horticultural activities.

A distinguishing feature of the model is its ability to pay attention to the most relevant information it has been trained to work with. In this project, the team trains the model to learn from years of archived data to forecast variables such as streamflow, salinity, and nitrate concentration.

Water sampling by SCCF

As co-principal investigator, SCCF Marine Lab Director Eric Milbrandt, Ph.D., is utilizing methods for earlier HAB detection through the River, Estuary and Coastal Observing Network’s (RECON) continuous water quality monitoring stations and a comprehensive, targeted sampling program — critical tools in a region where water quality monitoring has largely occurred as a reaction to bloom events.

“The modeling used to better predict harmful algal blooms is supported and validated by a field campaign to sample water from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. We collect water quality data and water samples that are delivered to University of Florida researchers Drs. Elise Morrison and Ed Phlips. Other water samples are run at the SCCF Marine Lab.”

Eric milbrandt, sccf marine lab director

The model learns to read current conditions in the water and a region’s weather forecast, then accurately makes predictions up to 14 days for the area being studied. Transformers models’ capacity to extract information from large datasets has led to better performance compared to previous methods of hydrological modeling and can model a wider range of variables. 

UF project team members Morrison, an assistant professor in the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment, and Phlips, a professor in the School of Forest, Fisheries and Geomatic Sciences in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, are developing novel water quality sampling methods to identify the specific nutrient sources fueling HABs, their origin, and their impact on phytoplankton (algae) communities.

Benefit of new tools and knowledge

Milbrandt stresses the importance of a concentrated scientific focus on our ecosystem.

“We live and work on a barrier island with limited local expertise, so this project is exciting because of the depth and breadth of new tools and knowledge that will be brought to the region to help tackle water quality declines,” he said. “HABs are causing many negative effects, from fish kills, to large hypoxic [low-oxygen] zones, to blue-green algae blooms that clog up our waterways, all of which negatively affect our tourism-based economy.”

water sampling gulf

The next step is to apply the transformer model in real-time, with data from weather forecasting agencies to automate predictions on a day-to-day basis.

This work is part of a project to integrate lake, watershed, and estuarine models to guide water management in mitigating the impact of harmful algal blooms. The project is a partnership between the University of Florida, the University of South Florida, North Carolina State University, and SCCF with funding support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Increased frequency of red tide

The study is a multipronged approach by UF researchers and their collaborators on a phenomenon that has plagued coastal ecosystems, particularly in southwest Florida, with greater frequency.

A study conducted by UF and published in 2020, showed that, over a 16-year period, there were 28 times when a Florida county experienced a month with 15 or more days of red tide presence. All of them occurred in one of six counties — Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, or Collier — which comprises 200 miles of coastline in southwest Florida.

UF-CSS Associate Director David Kaplan, Ph.D., and a team of CCS-affiliated scientists and engineers from UF, the University of South Florida, North Carolina State University, and SCCF received $2.3 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2021 to study how water and nutrients flowing from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River watershed interact with tides, currents, and waves at the coast to affect coastal water quality. Support from the Army Corps of Engineers extends through September 2024.


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