If you enjoy perusing satellite images or Google Maps, NASA has got a job for you! The space agency is offering up cash prizes for finding algal blooms in pictures from space.

The competition, named “Tick Tick Bloom,” asks participants to look at satellite images of inland water bodies and to notice if algal blooms are present. If they are, participants should classify them based on severity.

The competition offers a $12,000 first prize, with $9,000 and $6,000 being offered to the second and third-place winners, respectively.

First and second bonus prize winners will receive $2,000 and $1,000, NASA said in a statement.

lake erie algal bloom 2011
NASA Earth Observatory Image of the Day on October 14, 2011, showing Lake Erie’s algal bloom. NASA is currently holding a competition to identify algal blooms in satellite images.
Landsat image created for NASA’s Earth Observatory by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using data provided courtesy of the United States Geological Survey. MODIS Rapid Response imagery provided courtesy of Jeff Schmaltz.

Algal blooms are mass growths of microscopic algae or phytoplankton, usually as a result of an influx of nutrients. If this occurs in inland water bodies, the massive blooms can cause havoc in marine ecosystems due to the blocking of sunlight below the bloom and the sapping of all the oxygen in the water.

Additionally, cyanobacterial algal blooms can often produce toxins, which can be dangerous to humans and wildlife drinking or swimming in the water. These are known as harmful algal blooms (HABs).

Microcystins, toxins produced by certain freshwater cyanobacteria, were found in 39 percent of lakes sampled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2017. These toxins normally fall into one of two categories: toxins that target the liver (hepatotoxins) or toxins that target the nervous system (neurotoxins).

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 occur in pets, due to their smaller mass.

algal bloom lake
Stock image of a lake polluted by an algal bloom. Microcystins, toxins produced by certain freshwater cyanobacteria, were found in 39 percent of lakes sampled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2017.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

These toxins can also lead to neurological problems in wild animals, causing unusual behaviors, as potentially is being seen currently in a population of Cape fur seals off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa.

Usually, algal blooms are detected by manually sampling the water, known as “in situ” sampling. While an accurate way to determine if a water body contains algae, in situ sampling is time intensive and hard to do on a large scale, so computers are being trained to recognize the signs of algal blooms in satellite images.

The classifications provided by the competition participants will be used to train an algorithm to do the same, meaning that computers will be better able to find areas where an algal bloom is occurring. NASA said that this will 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 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,” NASA said in the statement.

A leaderboard is visible on the competition page, showing the current high scorers. The competition will end at 6:59 p.m. ET on Feb. 17, 2023.

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