Algae in the Air

Haley Plaas researches if blooms correlate with poor air quality
Haley Plaas, a PhD candidate in environmental science and engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill, has partnered with the Chowan Edenton Environmental Group (CEEG) to deploy PurpleAir air sensors along North Carolina’s Chowan River, part of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system. Harmful algal blooms (HABs) emit cells and chemical compounds that travel as tiny atmospheric particles, called aerosols. The researchers’ goal is to see if blooms correlate with poor air quality due to an increase in these aerosols and to generate a wealth of accessible data in areas that are underreported.

“Water quality is a key issue here. It’s a big part of our livelihood,” said Colleen Karl, chair of the CEEG. “It affects the economy. Just look at the number of people that commercially and recreationally fish. Farming is tied into it because they use the water for irrigation, among a number of other reasons. There’s also a lot of people that buy houses in the area because they want to be on the water.”

In the study, funded by NC Sea Grant and the Water Resources Institute, Karl engages with the community to find volunteers to host sensors, scout blooms, collect water samples and build local partnerships. Plaas serves as scientific oversight, determining where to install sensors, conducting lab experiments, and building statistical models for the data.

Plaas said engaging community scientists is not only practical — they host sensors, collect water samples and notify authorities when blooms arise — it’s also ethical.

“I see the intention of science to be seeking knowledge to improve and better our societies. I think the only way that you can really know if you are doing research that’s going to improve a community is if you’re getting constant feedback from them the whole time.”

Learn more about how algae affects air quality…

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