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Geoscience student receives grand prize for innovative lake management project

Proxies are physical, chemical and biological materials preserved within the earth's environmental record that can be analyzed and correlated with environmental parameters in our modern world.  But what does that proxy data look like, and how can we use it to improve environmental management in a timely way?

Addy Pletcher.EES
Addy Pletcher, MSU environmental geosciences senior, received a Grand Prize in the AGU Freilich Visualization Competition for her project designed to improve decision making for lake management related to harmful algal blooms. Courtesy photo

Enter Addy Pletcher, a Michigan State University senior majoring in environmental geosciences in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences within the College of Natural Science, who received a grand prize in the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Freilich Visualization Competition.

The American Geophysical Union Michael H. Freilich Student Visualization Competition Program provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate creative ways to use visualization to present complex problems in Earth and space sciences as well as transdisciplinary sciences.

Pletcher's submission was based on work completed by herself and winning team member, Shuyu Chang of Pennsylvania State University, during their 2021 summer internship at NASA DEVELOP.

EES.Addy Pletcher.Study area
Study Area:  Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake, two reservoirs in the Highland Lakes Chain. Credit: Addy Pletcher

The team's DEVELOP project was designed to improve real-time monitoring of environmental proxies relevant to algal blooms in the Highland Lake Chain and to aid in cost-effective, timely, and informed decision making for lake management.

The Highland Lakes Chain is a large residential and tourist area in Austin, Texas. Since 2019, harmful algae blooms in Lady Bird Lake and Lake Travis, two reservoirs within the chain, have resulted in mass canine death, harmful cyanobacteria, and high levels of neurotoxins. Although water sampling and lake monitoring have been done for decades by the City of Austin Department of Watershed Protection and the Lower Colorado River Authority, it wasn’t enough.

Dog warning sign
Algae warning signs posted along the lakeshore in Highland Lakes Chain. Credit:  Addy Pletcher

According to Pletcher, “There have been dog deaths within 30 minutes of consumption. So that's why this was an urgent problem that needed to be dealt with. And while there's no threat to humans at this time, we don't know that that won't happen with hotter temperatures and warmer longer seasons. And this is right where the water treatment plant is for all of downtown Austin.”

The solution involved using remote sensing and artificial intelligence to help detect levels of 4 environmental proxies. These included chlorophyll, turbidity (the amount of sediment in water), water surface temperature and cyanobacteria. Then the team built the Lake Algal Monitoring Dashboard (LAMDA), a program that takes the proxy data and allows the user to adjust the parameters such as time, date and levels.

Submission. Addy Pletcher
Algae Event detection involved remote sensing of four environmental proxies.  Credit:  Addy Pletcher

According to the contest submission, “The availability and processing ease of continually updating remote sensing datasets allow end users to move beyond traditional field-based methods for water quality monitoring, which has previously been focused on data collection typically at a limited number of sites and bi-monthly interval.”

Pletcher explained, “Overall, our project enables the partners in Austin, Texas, to implement Earth observation products into their current decision-making framework regarding lake management and protections, which would save costs from lab water testing and provide timely warnings.”

“I am looking at going into hydrogeology or hydrology, with an emphasis in the technology like remote sensing, GIS, machine learning, and modeling.” Pletcher said. “You can't do a hydro project without speaking to the geologists, the ecologists and the engineers. It's so multifaceted, and there's so many directions that you can go. I think the DEVELOP project contributed to that spike in my interest.”


Banner Image: AGU application presentation page showing the winning team's Algae Event Detection solution. Credit: Addy Pletcher