Science News: NASA offers total cash prize of $30K to spot toxic Algal blooms

The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is offering $30,000 in cash prizes to spot harmful algal blooms in photographs taken from space. Titled ‘Tick Tick Bloom’, participants have to study satellite images of inland water bodies to identify and segregate algal blooms by severity. The winner will receive $12,000. Second and third prizes are worth $9,000 and $6,000. The top five must submit an article on methodology used and bonus prizes – $2,000 and $1,000 – will be awarded to the two best write-ups, NASA said.

Participants can view the leaderboard here. The contest will be open till February 17.

According to environment advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, Algae depends on the sun for growth. An overgrowth of algae in water bodies leads to an algal bloom. A harmful algal bloom (HAB) produces dangerous toxins that can affect humans, and other organisms, and threaten marine ecosystems by blocking sunlight and oxygen. The most commonly found freshwater HABs in the United States are due to cyanobacteria, which can produce cyanotoxins. Climate change has led to the more frequent formations of HABs.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), toxins produced by HABs can be absorbed via the skin, inhaled or consumed via contaminated foods, and can lead to flu-like symptoms, skin irritation, abnormal breathing, gastrointestinal symptoms, and even human paralysis. Seizures and death may also occur in some instances.

Generally, manual water sampling – also known as ‘in situ’ sampling – is carried out to identify cyanobacteria. However, since this process takes a lot of time and effort, the competition is being used to train computer algorithms to detect algal blooms.

NASA added that this will result in better accuracy and timeliness for water quality managers to carry out their work on a large scale.

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