Using Landsat to extend the historical record of lacustrine phytoplankton blooms: A Lake Erie case study

J.C. Ho, R.P. Stumpf, T.B. Bridgeman and A.M. Michalak


Long-term observations of freshwater phytoplankton blooms are important for understanding trends in the processes driving blooms. Most existing data sets are based on in situ sampling or on observations from modern satellite instruments, and neither of these approaches is well suited for developing multi-decadal data records. In this paper, we used data from the Landsat 5 instrument (1984-2011) to generate new bloom estimates historically. For our Lake Erie case study, the new estimates more than doubling the period of record that can now be used to understand bloom occurrence and growth. This work also opens the door for generating long-term records for other lakes.

Figure: Largest observed bloom areas estimated via Landsat (1984–2011) and MODIS (2012–2015) instruments. Bars indicate observed bloom area (green) and additional cloud-obscured potential bloom area (yellow). The number on top of each bar indicates the number of Landsat images available in July to October each year.


Long-term records of phytoplankton blooms in freshwater lakes are necessary both for understanding basin-scale changes to watersheds and for providing a key constraint for assessing processes driving blooms. However, due to the inherent constraints of in situ sampling and the short time period covered by modern space borne sensors, few long-term records exist. Historical data from sensors such as Landsat offer strong potential for creating new records of past blooms. Here, we use a novel evaluation procedure based on multiple metrics to assess algorithm suitability and robustness for generating long-term bloom records using Landsat 5 imagery. Evaluation metrics are based on bloom presence, spatial distribution, magnitude and timing, using both in situ Microcystis biovolume and remotely-sensed Cyanobacterial Index (CI) data from MERIS for 2002-2011. Applying this procedure for a test case focusing on Lake Erie’s western basin, an algorithm based on a near infrared threshold with simple atmospheric correction through subtraction of the shortwave infrared band, combined with an additional “greenness” filter based on a hue threshold, performs best. Implementing this algorithm for 1984-2001 reveals the long-term trends in peak bloom magnitude prior to the start of the MERIS and MODIS record (2002-2015), and more than doubles the period of record that can be used to understand bloom occurrence and growth for this system. More broadly, we demonstrate that Landsat observations can be used to identify macro-scale features of blooms. For Lake Erie, the performance of the final Landsat algorithm is comparable to that of the MERIS CI algorithm, despite Landsat’s broad spectral bands and long revisit time.

Ho, J.C., R.P. Stumpf, T.B. Bridgeman, A.M. Michalak (2017) "Using Landsat to extend the historical record of lacustrine phytoplankton blooms: A Lake Erie case study", Remote Sensing of Environment, 191, 273-285, doi:10.1016/j.rse.2016.12.013.