American space agency NASA is offering cash prizes for finding algal blooms in pictures from space. The competition, named "Tick Tick Bloom", asks participants to use satellite imagery to detect and classify the severity of algal blooms in small, inland water bodies. The competition offers a $12,000 first prize, with $9,000 and $6,000 being offered to the second and third place winners, respectively. Additionally, first and second bonus prize winners will receive $2,000 and $1,000.
"The 5 top-scoring performers in this competition will be invited to submit a brief write-up of their modeling methodology. A bonus prize will be awarded to the two best write-ups as selected by a judging panel based on factors including model interpretability and robustness," the competition page read.
Algal blooms are mass growths of microscopic algae or phytoplankton, which are usually caused by an influx of nutrients. If these blooms occur in inland water bodies, they can cause havoc in marine ecosystems, can harm human health and threaten other mammals like pets.
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Cyanobacterial algal blooms can multiply very quickly in warm, nutrient-rich environments, often creating visible blue or green blooms. According to experts, these blooms can block sunlight from reaching the rest of the aquatic ecosystem beneath the surface, and take away oxygen and nutrients from other organisms. NASA has stated that the effect of climate change on marine environments likely makes harmful algal blooms form more often.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these toxins can be absorbed via the skin, inhaled, swallowed, or consumed via contaminated foods, and can lead to flu-like symptoms, skin irritation, abnormal breathing, gastrointestinal symptoms, and even paralysis in humans. Seizures and death may also occur in pets, due to their smaller mass.
With the competition, the US space agency is hoping to train computers to recognise the signs of algal blooms in satellite images, making it easier to detect and monitor these blooms on a large scale. NASA said that the competition will also help water quality managers know where to take samples from, and know faster which areas of water may or may not be safe for human consumption.
The competition will end on February 17, 2023.