2023 journal article
Advancing freshwater ecological forecasts: Harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie
SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT, 856.
Ecological models help provide forecasts of ecosystem responses to natural and anthropogenic stresses. However, their ability to create reliable predictions requires forecasts with track records sufficiently long to build confidence, skill assessments, and treating uncertainty quantitatively. We use Lake Erie harmful algal blooms as a case study to help formalize ecological forecasting. Key challenges for models include uncertainty in the deterministic structure of the load-bloom relationship and the need to assess alternative drivers (e.g., biologically available phosphorus load, spring load, longer term cumulative load) with a larger dataset. We enhanced a Bayesian model considering new information and an expanded data set, test it through cross validation and blind forecasts, quantify and discuss its uncertainties, and apply it for assessing historical and future scenarios. Allowing a segmented relationship between bloom size and spring load indicates that loading above 0.15 Gg/month will have a substantially higher marginal impact on bloom size. The new model explains 84 % of interannual variability (9.09 Gg RMSE) when calibrated to the 19-year data set and 66 % of variability in cross validation (12.58 Gg RMSE). Blind forecasts explain 84 % of HAB variability between 2014 and 2020, which is substantially better than the actual forecast track record (R2 = 0.32) over this same period. Because of internal phosphorus recycling, represented by the long-term cumulative load, it could take over a decade for HABs to fully respond to loading reductions, depending on the pace of those reductions. Thus, the desired speed and endpoint of the lake's recovery should be considered when updating and adaptively managing load reduction targets. Results are discussed in the context of ecological forecasting best pactices: incorporate new knowledge and data in model construction; account for multiple sources of uncertainty; evaluate predictive skill through validation and hindcasting; and answer management questions related to both short-term forecasts and long-term scenarios.