Photo of Doctoral Student Emily Varga taken in KenyaDoctoral student Emily Varga travelled to the east African country of Kenya to gain an understanding of its algal blooms.

Team comparing algal blooms in Africa and North America

Harmful algal blooms are not unique to Lake Erie. The global issue took a team of UWindsor researchers to Kenya to study its algal blooms, in hopes of shedding light on the problem in southern Ontario.

The collaborative effort paired researchers from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Kenya to collect data on Lake Victoria in hopes of better understanding the environmental drivers of harmful algal blooms. Algal blooms are collections of algae that have the potential to produce toxins that can contaminate drinking water and harm the ecosystem.

PhD student Emily Varga (BSc 2018) joined her supervisor Mike McKay, director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER), and school of the environment professor Ken Drouillard on the trip, along with researchers from Bowling Green State UniversityKing’s College London, Kisii University, Technical University of Kenya, and Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute.

“We were all working together, and everybody had a chance to go out on the boat and collect water samples and we also worked on tributaries that feed into the lake. The data will be shared by everyone that was there,” says Varga.

“The idea is to look at the environmental drivers of algal blooms in Kenya and compare that to what is going on here at home in Lake Erie and hopefully we can learn from them, and they can learn from us, and get a better understanding of what causes these things to happen across the globe.”

Many studies are focused on how nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen contribute to blooms, but Varga is designing unique microcosm studies in the Thames River and Lake. St. Clair.

“Specifically, I manipulate the amount of sunlight that reaches the microcosms by wrapping containers in various amounts of screening to determine the affect on algal growth,” she says.

“I also look at environmental factors that determine what species of algae dominate over others and determine the level of toxicity. The major dominant species both here and in Lake Victoria is Microcystis; with the potential to create the toxin microcystin it is the one that is most worrisome here.”

Dr. McKay says the project was a long time coming.

“The anticipation for this program funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation had been building for two years due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said McKay.

“Pairing a cohort of graduate students from North America with their counterparts from the global south provided an unique opportunity for reciprocal learning and to build professional relationships that will continue to grow.”

Beyond the focus on graduate training, McKay also noted “this study will provide a rich dataset that can be incorporated into a comparative study of harmful algal blooms in large lakes spanning Earth’s major climate zones.”

Varga says we must consider the big picture to solve problems like harmful algal blooms.

“This is not just an ‘us’ problem; the planet belongs to all of us, so we want to learn from each other and help one another and we need to have people change their behaviour to fix the problem,” she says.