CLEVELAND, OH (WTOL) - The beginning of another algal bloom season in Lake Erie is only a couple of months away and concerns about toxic algae and the effects on our water quality will rise once again.
To help communities like Toledo respond to the blooms, the agency famous for space exploration is taking to the skies.
At the front of their complex in West Cleveland, a sign at the NASA Glenn Research Center says "For the benefit of all." It's a clear message that NASA is ready to help in the battle against algae.
Pilot Jim Demers was behind the controls of a flight in August 2015 that was part of NASA's mission to monitor Lake Erie for growth and progression of algal blooms. They were working on sensor technology for aircraft, when Toledo's water crisis was caused by toxic algae in 2014.
"As things evolved, we started realizing, hey we've got a fairly large role in this, and it's an important role and we really don't want to mess it up," Demers said.
The aerial view of Lake Erie showed the algae that had formed in the water in 2015. There were big blotches of algae that could only be seen from this perspective.
Demers was asked if they are providing more monitoring and more warnings about toxic algae than ever before, and he said yes, that is happening.
"And more understanding of the actual issue, because I don't think there was a real understanding of how invasive this algae was," said Demers.
Demers took us into his Twin Otter plane that will make more algae detection flights this summer.
He says a special sensor called a Hyperspectral Imager will be mounted on the floor of the aircraft to use sunlight to provide in-depth views of the algae that will grow.
The sensors are not cheap; new one costs $50,000 to build.
As the pilots fly over Lake Erie, an external lens on the sensor collects the images. They go inside the sensor, and those images are dispersed into hundreds of color, like a rainbow. Those colors can later be analyzed to determine if there is blue green algae, the type that contains those harmful toxins.
Researchers will use that data to learn if the algae is harmful or not. And that critical information would then go to Ohio's Harmful Algae Bloom Coordinator and then to leaders from lakeshore communities like Toledo, whose drinking water is most at risk from algae.
"And that lets them, I think helps them, to make decisions in terms of how they want to treat the water. And also be prepared for how the situation might change," said Lekki.
NASA plans at least 20 flights to monitor Lake Erie this summer, likely starting in early July.
"I think we're going to go up there and hope, hope that there's nothing!" said Demers. "To be honest with you, I think that's the perfect thing - the algae has gone away. But maybe this year won't be as bad as last."
The whole project is proof that NASA isn't only about what's going on in space, but also what's happening on Earth, to protect our water and health.
As NASA's lead researchers, Lekki says it's too early to predict the severity of this year's algal bloom. But he said the mild winter could allow it to start growing earlier than normal.