Delivering resilience to climate impacts on UK freshwater quality: towards national-scale cyanobacterial bloom monitoring and forecasting

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Biological and Environmental Sciences


The summer drought and heatwave in 2018 highlighted the vulnerability of UK water resources to current and future climate change. This vulnerability was not only due to insufficient water quantity, but was exacerbated by water quality issues caused by harmful blooms of blue-green algae (also known as cyanobacteria) that flourished due to the high temperatures and low flushing, particularly in lakes and reservoirs. This had major impacts across the whole of the UK, including higher water treatment costs in many reservoirs, restrictions on drinking water supplies in some regions, closure of many recreational waters, fish kills and the deaths of several pet dogs. Monitoring of blue-green algae in the UK is currently very reactive and limited in scope to <1% of the UK's lakes and reservoirs. This limited monitoring hinders effective management and raises the risks posed to public and animal health. However, recent innovations in the use of data from satellites observing the Earth from space and the use of data collected by members of the UK public using the smartphone app Bloomin'Algae have the potential to change this dramatically by increasing both the number of waterbodies monitored and the frequency at which they are observed. These innovations in earth observation and citizen science have real potential to provide water companies, environmental regulators, local authorities and the public with the data and information they need to better manage the risks posed by toxic blooms of algae.

In this proof-of-concept study we will demonstrate the power of new satellite data, including those from hundreds of small 'nanosatellites' recently launched into space, for monitoring algal blooms in waterbodies across the UK. We will augment this with shore-based citizen observations made by members of the public and relevant agency and industry staff. We will investigate the combined power of these two novel sources of data to identify the presence of bloom events that exceed current UK and World Health Organisation guidelines for drinking water supply and recreational activities. We will also review the potential of the data to improve our scientific understanding of the impact of short-term climate extremes on UK water quality. The two approaches provide complementarity in the spatial scales of sites that can be monitored and allow us to verify findings independently. In parallel, we will assemble a team of scientists with diverse expertise in the use of satellite data, citizen science, modelling and statistics to work in collaboration with water utility companies, the UK health and environment protection agencies, and local authority representatives. This working group will establish a blueprint for a nation-wide bloom monitoring and forecasting service that could feed into and augment a number of their existing systems for monitoring and reporting environmental incidents that have health, social or economic impact. This could include a system that provides direct notifications to members of the public and interested bodies, such as watersport centres, fisheries and vet practices. Such a climate service would greatly strengthen the resilience of the UK water industry, environment agencies, public health bodies and local authorities to future climate change.

Planned Impact

The highly applied, proof-of-concept research proposed here is a small but critical first step towards the development of an operational service for the early-warning monitoring and forecasting of harmful blooms of cyanobacteria in UK freshwaters. It is anticipated that the proposed service would deliver significant economic and social impacts to non-academic beneficiaries in the public and private sectors as well as to wider society. These include:
(a) Water utilities. Harmful cyanobacterial blooms are a major issue in many drinking water reservoirs across the UK and these blooms impose significant costs on water utility companies through increased water treatment and restrictions on the consumption of water from affected reservoirs. The development of a service providing timely warnings of blooms in drinking waters would be highly advantageous for water utility companies because such information could strongly guide decision-making leading to reduced treatment costs, avoidance of reputational damage and ultimately mitigate potential risks to public health.
(b) UK Environment Agencies. The UK environment agencies have a statutory responsibility to ensure good status of freshwaters in the UK under the EU Water Framework Directive and to prevent exposure and inform the public in the event of a potentially-toxic cyanobacterial bloom occurring in a bathing water under the EU Bathing Water Directive. They also undertake monitoring in response to reports of blooms in other waterbodies. There are insufficient resources to permit regular sampling at all waterbodies at risk of blooms in the UK and, as such, the monitoring currently undertaken by the environment agencies is highly reactionary. The development of a service providing near real-time information on bloom occurrence would provide the agencies with the capability to monitor more waterbodies, at higher frequency and, if needed, follow-up in a more proactive manner than is currently achievable. This would not only help the agencies fulfil their statutory obligations but it would also help minimise the chance of blooms going unreported, lessening the risks to public health.
UK Health Protection Agencies. The health protection agencies, including Public Health England and Health Protection Scotland, have a duty to protect the public in the UK from threats to their health from infectious diseases and environmental hazards. This includes microbiological hazards, such as toxigenic cyanobacteria. The agencies operate surveillance systems designed to collect, collate and analyse environmental health data to inform future interventions to reduce disease burdens. However, current reporting is highly selective and incomplete. The development of a UK-wide service providing up-to-date data on the occurrence of blooms could be incorporated into current incident reporting systems, greatly improving reporting of harmful events of cyanobacteria and thereby contribute to future efforts to minimise the risks to public health.
General Public. Cyanobacterial blooms in waterbodies used for drinking and recreation pose significant risks to the health of the public, pets and livestock. Mitigation of these risks relies on early recognition, reporting and management interventions. Current approaches to monitoring in the UK means that the presence of many blooms often goes unnoticed by the authorities potentially exposing members of the public to unknown health risks. The development of a service providing timely information on the occurrence of blooms would greatly help local authorities in their efforts to protect public health. Moreover, such a service would enable those members of the public most likely to be exposed (e.g. dog walkers, open water swimmers, water sports enthusiasts) to better self-manage the risks to themselves and/or their pets and livestock animals. This could greatly reduce the risks of both acute and chronic exposure to cyanobacteria and associated incidences of disease.
Description We have developed the first UK-wide service for water quality monitoring using satellite data
Exploitation Route We are developing the service further through funding from the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal while also discussing various new research and commerical applications of the technology and data products.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment

Description The project developed the first satellite-based water quality monitoring service for the UK. This service is now being trialled and used by a number of organisations including SEPA and Scottish Water.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

Description Inventive forecasting tools for adapting water quality management to a new climate
Amount € 4,021,497 (EUR)
Funding ID 956623 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 03/2021 
End 02/2025
Description NASA E.2 Satellite Validation Working Group 
Organisation Group on Earth Observations (GEO)
Country Switzerland 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The research team have contributed to the development of a working group specifically focussed on the validation of satellite data over inland waters. A proposal has been submitted to and approved by NASA for funding to facilitate a series of virtual meetings and workshops to discuss current approaches and challenges leading to recommendations to the wider community. This is being undertaken the GEO AquaWatch Community of Practice.
Collaborator Contribution We have contributed to the agenda setting, the development of the proposal and the planning for the working group.
Impact International workshop on satellite validation over inland waters
Start Year 2020
Description SEPA Sustainable Growth Agreement (SGA) 
Organisation Scottish Environment Protection Agency
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution The University of Stirling recently signed a Sustainable Growth Agreement with SEPA which includes a commitment to explore new opportunities to use Earth observation technologies to enhance environmental regulation. This SGA in part builds on the work undertaken through the NERC CR project and, in particular, the development of the UK Lakes Observatory (UKLO) which is now being used by SEPA staff. The UKLO will be further developed through this partnership, while the research team will also be leading the development of new data services for SEPA.
Collaborator Contribution SEPA will working with the research team to co-develop projects under the auspices of the SGA and will also provide financial and in-kind support for future work.
Impact The first output from the SGA is the co-development of a new satellite-based service to map the extent of flooding in the Forth region. These new data will feed into a bespoke 'flooding dashboard' being co-developed by the University of Stirling and SEPA.
Start Year 2022
Title UK Lakes Observatory 
Description Web-based portal for visualisation of satellite water quality data produced from Sentinel-2 MSI data for >900 UK waterbodies 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact The UK Lakes Observatory is being used by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, NatureScot, Scottish Water and Anglian Water in support of the routine water quality and site condition monitoring responsibilities. 
Description Defra Earth Observation Centre of Excellence - Water Quality Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The UK Lakes Observatory web platform developed as part of this project was presented at the Defra Earth Observation Centre of Excellence - Water Quality Workshop in 2020 to a range of stakeholders. There was broad interested in the platform and discussions are continuing over how the service and platform can be further developed and more widely exploited.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Stakeholder meeting on exploiting satellite remote sensing and citizen science 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A stakeholder meeting was held on 9th January 2020 with representatives from UK water companies (Scottish Water & Anglian) and UK environment agencies (EA, SEPA) responsible for monitoring water quality and harmful algal blooms. The stakeholder meeting was organised in conjunction with a NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowship (Dr Claire Neil, University of Stirling) due to a common interest with this UKRI project (PI, Dr Peter Hunter, University of Stirling) to deliver enhanced monitoring of water quality in the UK.
Results from the UKRI UK Climate resilience Project were presented by both the PI (Hunter) on satellite EO monitoring and by Carvalho (UKCEH) on citizen science monitoring of harmful algal blooms (using the Bloomin'Algae smartphone app). The benefits of combining the two innovative forms of monitoring data were highlighted and discussed.
SEPA and Scottish Water staff informed the workshop attendees that they are already using the smartphone app operationally to receive notifications of potential harmful algal blooms in Scotland. The meeting concluded with recommendations for operationalising satellite EO into water quality monitoring and combining it with their existing monitoring regimes.

Outcomes and Impact
The workshop gave stakeholders the latest knowledge for them to take forward operationalising these services. Following the workshop, the EA staff have been engaged with UKCEH in citizen records of harmful algal blooms in late January from a dog-walking business at Windermere. Harmful algal blooms are considered unusual ay this time of year but may be largely missed by summer-focused monitoring programmes. The workshop has led to further discussion with both EA and Scottish Water about implications of citizen records for modifying their risk assessment procedures - specifically to incorporate lake area as a risk-enhancing factor. The meeting and follow-up highlights how citizen science and satellite EO can have real impact on reducing exposure of the public and their pets to the harmful liver- and neuro-toxins that cyanobacteria produce.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020