Photograph by Jose More, VWPics via AP
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Lake Atitlán is a popular tourist attraction and important resource for those living around it.

Photograph by Jose More, VWPics via AP

Can artificial intelligence save one of the world's most beautiful lakes?

Toxic algae is overtaking Lake Atitlán. Now AI may help the lake recover.

When algae blooms first appeared in Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan in 2009, its more than 200,000 residents were shocked, says Africa Flores, a native of Guatemala and research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Flores is one of 11 National Geographic grantees who have received grants to develop AI programs that help preserve natural environments or biodiversity. Grantees were revealed at a morning reception at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. on December 11.

Normally a picturesque blue, the lake was covered in a thin film of green algae when it first appeared. Lake Atitlan is a major tourist attraction in Guatemala, and it provides clean drinking water to the residents who live around its borders.

At its deepest, the lake extends down 980 feet, and when not marred by algae,the view in some spots is so clear at times thatboaters can see down more than 50 feet.

The sudden appearance of algae blooms, also called cyanobacteria, grow easily when substances like nitrogen and phosphorus accumulate in water. Freshwater ecosystems all over the globe are at risk of developing algae blooms when the results of human activity like runoff from the fertilizers used in agriculture and untreated sewage enter a body of water.

“Now it’s very frequent,” Flores says of the years since the blooms first appeared.

Though Flores says the blooms are now appearing every year, the largest occurred in 2009. It was so visible that NASA’s Terra satellite captured images of the phenomenonfrom from space.

Flores and local stakeholders in Guatemala decided to map the blooms over the following years, developing new AI (artificial intelligence) that will help local authorities better predict when and where algae around the lake will bloom.

To predict harmful blooms off the coasts of Texas and Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rely on a combination of on-the-ground and satellite reports. In Guatemala, Flores says there’s currently no technological infrastructure to warn authorities about an oncoming algae bloom.

She hopes new technologycan also help local NGOs and environmental groups target the sources of contaminants helping the blooms grow. For instance, they know both agricultural runoff and untreated sewage lead to blooms, but where and how intensely each impacts the lake remains a mystery.

“When we identify key variables that continue to algae bloom formation, there is a starting point to take action,” she says.

One benefit to using AI instead of people to identify the bloom’s source, says Flores, is that gathering information becomes cheaper and faster, and it can more easily be shared.

Other recipients are developing AI accomplishes other sustainability goals, including monitoring growing agricultural practices in Africa and mapping destructive, outdated dams.

A number of recipients will use AI to track changing animal populations by quickly analyzing information from visual surveys and acoustic monitoring.

“Human ingenuity, especially when paired with the speed, power and scale that AI brings, is our best bet for crafting a better future for our planet and everyone on it,” Microsoft’s chief environmental office Lucas Joppa said of the projectsin a press release.

Each grant awarded ranged from $45,000 and $200,000, and Microsoft and the National Geographic Society awarded $1.2 million in total.