x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Looking to the skies for early warnings of red-tide danger in the Gulf

Satellites could soon be used to monitor for the presence of harmful algal blooms in the Arabian Gulf.

Some algal blooms are harmless but other can cause problems, such as this red tide at Jumeirah Beach in Dubai, near the Burj Al Arab, in April 2009, which caused serious damage to fisheries and coral reefs. Jeff Topping / The National
Some algal blooms are harmless but other can cause problems, such as this red tide at Jumeirah Beach in Dubai, near the Burj Al Arab, in April 2009, which caused serious damage to fisheries and coral reefs. Jeff Topping / The National

Satellites could soon be providing early warnings of harmful algal blooms - rapid increases in algae populations - in the Arabian Gulf.

Advance notice of blooms, also known as red tides, would enable fisheries and desalination plants to take pre-emptive action to protect against their harmful effects.

The move is part of a project by the Masdar Institute and Bayanat for Mapping and Surveying Services, a Mubadala company

The project, which uses satellite imagery from Europe's Meteosat and Nasa's MODIS satellites, also aims to forecast and monitor other environmental hazards such as oil spills, water turbidity - or cloudiness due to particles - and high chlorophyll concentrations.

"This project is the first of its kind in the Gulf region and will provide information on marine resources management and sustainable development of the coastal and offshore zones," said Dr Hosni Ghedira, who is leading the effort with Dr Taha Ouarda.

"The tools we are developing can help Abu Dhabi reduce economic losses at fish farms by providing advanced warning of an upcoming red tide so they can move their stocks and sensitive species.

"It will save money for the government's desalination plants by facilitating early closure before an algal bloom, thus preventing contamination damage to the plants.

"Advance warning of a bloom will ensure that the water utilities will have time to make alternative solutions for customers before a desalination plant is closed."

The project, which is also studying the effect of desalination plants on coastal ecosystems, is led by the Ocean Colour Research Group at Masdar's Earth Observation and Hydro-Climatology Lab.

The team includes an IT engineer, a geographic information systems developer, a field and lab engineer and three research assistants. Two Emirati postdoctoral researchers, Mariam Al Shehhi and Muna Al Kaabi, are also involved.

Khaled Al Melhi, the chief executive of Bayanat for Mapping and Surveying Services, said the company had provided the Masdar team with a vessel.

"Our collaboration aims to tap Masdar Institute's expertise in developing new satellite-based tools to detect environmental hazards," he said.

"We hope the synergy between the two organisations will bring benefits to the region."

While most algal species are benign, some can wreak havoc.

A red tide between 2008 and 2009 caused serious damage to the UAE's fisheries and coral reefs.

High concentrations of algae have also often affected desalination plants on the east coast.

vtodorova@thenational.ae