Algae Blooms Appear in Lake Atitlan

Dec. 14, 2018

Artificial intelligence helps Lake Atitlan in Guatemala from toxic algae

In 2009, more than 200,000 residents were shocked when algae blooms appeared in Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan.

Africa Flores, native of Guatemala and research scientist at the University of Alabama, is working to slow the spread of algae and continues to threaten its ecosystems.

According to National Geographic, Flores has received grants to develop artificial intelligence (AI) programs that help preserve natural environments or biodiversity.

Lake Atitlan, which is normally blue, was covered in a thin film of green algae when it first appeared. The lake is a major tourist attraction and provides clean drinking water to residents, according to National Geographic.

According to National Geographic, the sudden appearance of algae blooms grow easily when substances like nitrogen and phosphorus accumulate in water.  Freshwater ecosystems all over the world are at risk of developing algae blooms when runoff from fertilizers used in agriculture and untreated sewage enter a body of water.

“Now it’s very frequent,” Flores said of the years since the blooms first appeared, to National Geographic.

Flores and local stakeholders in Guatemala decided to map the blooms over the following years. They developed new AI that will help authorities better predict when and where algae the lake will bloom.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rely on a combination of on-the-ground and satellite reports to predict harmful blooms off the coasts of Texas and Florida. According to Flores, there is currently no technological infrastructure to warn authorities about an oncoming algae bloom in Guatemala.

Flores hopes new technology can help local NGOs and environmental groups target the sources of contaminants helping the blooms grow. For example, they know agricultural runoff and untreated sewage lead to blooms but where and how intensely each impacts the lake remains a mystery.

“When we identify key variable that continue to algae bloom formation, there is a starting point to take action,” she said to National Geographic.

According to Flores, one benefit to using AI instead of people to identify the bloom’s source is that gathering information becomes cheaper and faster and can more easily be shared.