What do satellites, fish kills and farming have in common?

lake algae.JPGAlgae grows in a shallow freshwater bay. (Wikimedia Commons)
A new study being conducted by students at the University of Alabama in Huntsville could improve farming techniques, protect inland waterways, and prevent mass fish kills as well as algae blooms.
The study, unveiled recently by the university, will examine the relationship between aquatic vegetation growth and high agricultural activity around Lake Guntersville.
The student-driven project is being conducted by UAH earth science majors Casey Calamaio and Kel Markert with oversight from UAH advisers Rob Griffin and Jeff Luvall of NASA's Global Climatology and Hydrology Center. 
"We'd like for the end result to this to be a type of product that you can use to predict the results of various activities on the watershed," Griffin said.
The researchers plan to use topographical maps from NASA satellites and space shuttle missions in conjunction with U.S. Department of Agriculture Statistics Service data to determine what crops were planted where.
They'll then use multispectral satellite imagery to observe aquatic vegetation growth in the lake and seasonal variations.
In doing so, they hope to show the effect of agricultural runoff on the lake. The study is the first of its kind on Guntersville since the Tennessee Valley Authority stopped spraying herbicides to kill aquatic vegetation.
If successful, the researchers say the study could benefit multiple groups. Controlling weeds and algae in the lake supports tourism they say by keeping weeds from choking landings and harbors and preventing fish kills the can occur when masses of plant matter decay and consume the available oxygen.
Known as eutorphication, the phenomenon can occur when waters over-enriched with fertilizer runoff lead to massive vegetation growth.
The research could also save farmer money, they say by showing them how much of the expensive chemicals they apply to crops are staying in place to do their intended jobs.
The study, which was selected through a competitive funding process, is being paid for by NASA's DEVELOP program.
"NASA is always looking for way to use its satellite imagery to benefit society," said UAH research adviser Rob Griffin.
Both Calamaio and Markert are working as paid NASA interns during the research project. 


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