By Regina Stracqualursi

The environmental issues facing our world affect each and every one of us — from climate change to pollution, deforestation to natural resource shortages. While these issues all have a direct impact on our future, many of them are complex by nature and difficult to understand and address.

Harmful algae blooms (HABs) are a growing problem globally. Classified as a major environmental problem in all 50 states in America, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these overgrowths of algae can be very toxic, resulting in negative consequences for people, ecosystems, and economies.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are working to both combat HABs as well as help the public understand them.

With support from the National Science Foundation, Professors Shayla Sawyer and Rick Relyea are building and testing a prototype that will be able to monitor water quality for an increase in algal nutrients, such as nitrogen, which can cause HABs.

This work will allow Sawyer and Relyea to understand the relationship between nitrogen levels in fresh water and the severity of HABs. “This prototype can potentially play a key role in the future of aquatic environments,” Sawyer said.

In terms of public education, a mobile and tablet game called Algae Bloom Dynamics is using augmented reality (AR) to raise awareness about HABs and the negative impact they have. The game allows players to grow their own lake-island aquatic ecosystem, prompting them to learn how to identify sources of HABs and how to fix them.

The game was created by Eco Resilience Games, an interdisciplinary team of students and faculty at Rensselaer led by Associate Professor Kathleen Ruiz. The group creates games that allow people to understand the vital importance of different ecosystems and the need to work together globally for a sustainable, eco-resilient future. “We’re using advanced game technology to create a virtual world that inspires us to preserve our actual world,” said Ruiz.

The free game can be downloaded in the Apple iOS App Store or on Google Play.