New satellite will help scientists track algal blooms

The eye in the sky isn’t as sharp as it needs to be. Scientists seeking a good look at the harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie were hampered when a satellite quit working in 2012.

Help is coming in the form of a European satellite that will be launched by a Russian rocket. But the launch isn’t scheduled until late 2015, so the Sentinel-3 satellite’s images won’t be available until the bloom returns in 2016.

Richard Stumpf, an algal bloom forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, uses satellite photos for an algal bloom bulletin that is emailed out every few days when the bloom is active and posted on a NOAA website.

Stumpf said his bulletins use satellite photos from the MODIS sensor on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites.

From 2009 to 2011, NOAA used images recorded by the the Envisat-1 satellite, which unfortunately failed in April 2012.

The new Sentinel-3 satellite will replace Envisat-1 and will give NOAA the high-quality images the federal agency has been lacking, Stumpf said.

The MERIS sensor on Envisat-1 and on the new Sentinel-3 are designed to take photographs of coasts and lakes, Stumpf said.

“They measure several key wavelengths of light that MODIS does not, and are more sensitive in turbid water,” he said.

Images from the Sentinel-3 should particularly come in handy if there is a repeat of the incident that occurred during the past summer, when winds pushed the harmful algal bloom close to the shore in Toledo, contaminating the intake for the city’s water supply and forcing the city to warn 500,000 people on the weekend of Aug. 2 not to drink Toledo’s water.

“Normally, the bloom is out away from shore,” Stumpf said.

The Sentinel-3 will provide higher-resolution images and should allow NOAA to provide a warning a day or two in advance, so that cities will know they have to cope with algal blooms in the water treatment process, Stumpf said.

The current plan is to launch Sentinel-3 in late 2015, said Robert Meisner, Earth Observation communication program officer in Frascati, Italy, with the European Space Agency.

“Details will become available later,” he said.

The Sentinel-3 will be launched by a Russian rocket, the Rockot, from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

Plesetsk is a northern Russian spaceport, several hundred miles north of Moscow, that was originally built in 1957 for nuclear-tipped missiles pointed toward the U.S. In recent years, it has become an important location for launching satellites.


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