LEWISTON – Perhaps the oldest living thing on the planet – blue-green algae called cyanobacteria – is proving so big a headache for the nation’s lakes that the National Science Foundation recently agreed to fund a four-year, $6 million effort to deal with it.

One of the key scientists involved in the high-tech investigation funded by the grant is Holly Ewing, a Bates College environmental studies professor who’s been probing Lake Auburn for years.

Bates is slated to get $842,000 from the grant, one of two received this year by the college through a program designed to stimulate research which has so far given out 11 of them in all.

The research on cyanobacteria aims to find tools that can amass data constantly to figure out whether algae blooms are likely in potentially vulnerable lakes. The project plans to focus on lakes in four states, including Maine’s Lake Auburn and Sabattus Pond.

Ewing, who has studied Lake Auburn with Bates students for more than a decade, has been puzzling out why the algae is becoming an ever-larger problem.

She told a Great Falls Forum this year that it’s a combination of a warming climate, more sunshine, less ice, more nutrients carried by harder and more frequent rain, and other factors.

When the blooms form, they can create a number of problems, from a fish kill in 2012 that left trout floating on the surface to last fall’s stinky drinking water for communities that depend on the lake, including Lewiston and Auburn.

It has become a big enough issue that Auburn is talking about the possibility of building a filtration plant for the water taken from the lake.

According to a Bates College release, Ewing and other researchers intend to use boats and aerial drones equipped with sensors and operated by robots to gather more information.

“The hope is that the larger amount of data and the models that it can drive will help us understand blooms better,” Ewing said in the prepared statement.

The lead investigator for the project is a Dartmouth University professor. Ewing is one of four co-principal investigators involved in the project titled Computational Methods and Autonomous Robotics Systems for Modeling and Predicting Harmful Cyanobacterial Blooms.

Ewing said, according to Bates, that her role “has been to frame the ecological questions, frame the lake science that needs to happen, and guide the integration of science with the robotics.”

“I’m trying to help identify how the technology can best be used in the service of the science itself,” she said. One of her hopes is that drones may be able to spot blooms forming.

The grant includes funding for students to participate as well, including water sampling and analysis, Bates said.

Ewing said the experience will go beyond the hands-on work to see the value of collaboration with the community and across academic disciplines, Bates said.

“This project requires understanding of community needs and what’s going on in these watersheds, which is very much socially driven,” Ewing said in the Bates release.

“And understanding people’s values with respect to how we pay attention to lakes, how we interact with lakes — there’s definitely a cultural and place-based component to that,” she said. “And all of this is intimately related to the science.”


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