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UW Crest with engineering background

Analyzing an ‘Erie’ algae similarity with Kenya’s Kisumu Bay

Written By: Alex Holloway

When spring comes around, freeing Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, from its annual deep freeze, Paul Block and his students study the season’s climate conditions to predict what summer has in store for the lake.

Max Beal
Max Beal

Max Beal, a civil and environmental engineering PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is part of that group. Now he’s taking lessons learned in his hometown of Madison to a similar lake more than 7,800 miles away. Beal is going to Kisumu Bay, on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria in Africa, under a National Science Foundation funded advanced studies program. Beal is one of 10 U.S. students participating in the program who will travel to Kenya for three weeks in June 2022 to study algal blooms on the lake. They’ll meet with 10 Kenyan students to develop research projects to study algal blooms in Lake Erie and Lake Victoria.

Block, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Beal produce annual season-ahead forecasts of summertime cyanobacteria, which have the capability to produce harmful toxins, in Lake Mendota. The team distributes these reports to organizations like Public Health Madison and Dane County and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to assist with lake and beach management, such as summer budgeting and water quality sampling routines.

“We evaluate springtime variables like global climate patterns, streamflow, and precipitation that modulate how lake conditions and nutrient loads are influencing cyanobacteria growth,” Beal says. “We utilize these springtime variables to predict summer water quality conditions on the lake. Our forecasts go back to 2016.”

Lake Victoria faces some of the same challenges as Lake Erie, and the students will conduct a comparative study between the two lakes. Beal says lots of agricultural nutrients flow into Lake Victoria, as is also the case with Lake Erie. However, there are notable differences, such as climate and the mixture of nutrient sources that come into the lakes.

“One of the major differences between Lake Erie and Kisumu Bay is that Lake Erie’s algal blooms are primarily fed by agricultural runoff,” Beal says. “Kisumu Bay has a mixture of non-point-source pollution from agricultural runoff and actual point sources from people dumping nutrient-rich water into the bay. It will be interesting to observe how it affects algal bloom growth each year.”

Once in Kenya, the U.S. students will team up with Kenyan graduate students who share similar research interests. The students will attend lectures presented by Kenyan and U.S. experts, and participate in “research cruises” on Kisumu Bay to take samples for analysis. The trip will conclude with presentations from the U.S. students and their Kenyan counterparts.

“I’m excited about meeting other students from the U.S. and Kenya and hearing their perspectives on water quality challenges and international research,” Beal says. “Building those collaborations, especially as a graduate student, is a unique opportunity to start learning from cyanobacteria experts from all over the world.”