The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
By Anne Schechinger
Over the Fourth of July holiday, many of us love to beat the heat in a favorite lake, pond or river. But this year, vacationers from coast to coast will have to look out for a potentially record-breaking number of algae blooms.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggest that much of the ocean surface will be bluer and greener due to the effect of rising global temperatures on phytoplankton, or microscopic marine algae that contain chlorophyll and need sunlight to live and grow.
The current outbreak, which began in October 2017 off southwest Florida, has been tied to a record 589 sea turtle deaths and 213 manatee deaths, the Herald-Tribune reported, citing figures from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The research, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, shows that from 1925-2016, the frequency of marine heatwaves increased on average by 34 percent and the length of each heatwave increased by 17 percent. In all, the number of marine heatwave days has increased 54 percent per year.
Scientists predict that so much pollution is pouring into the Gulf of Mexico this year that it is creating a larger-than-ever "dead zone" in which low to no oxygen can suffocate or kill fish and other marine life.
The Guardian reported that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is expected to announce this week the largest recorded hypoxic zone in the gulf, an oxygen-depleted swath that's even larger than the New Jersey-sized, 8,185 square-mile dead zone originally predicted for July.
Cyanobacteria bloom at Clear Lake, Lake County, California, resulted in oxygen depletion in the water and the subsequent mortality of multiple aquatic species, including carp, catfish, bluegill and crappie. Kirsten Macintyre, California Department of Fish and Wildlife
Associated Press reported that algal blooms have been detected in more than 40 of the California's bodies of water—the highest number in state history. The blue-green cyanobacterium's growth has been fueled by
record-breaking heat and a historic drought.
"Warm temperatures, increased nutrients, and low water flows aggravated by drought conditions and climate change are favoring toxin-producing cyanobacteria and algae; and a number of lakes, reservoirs and river systems are suffering blooms as a result," the California State Water Resources Control Board announced last month.
As the Sacrameto Bee described, this green muck has been spotted across the Golden State:
"Since July, officials have issued notices about potentially toxic blue-green algae in the Klamath River near the Oregon border; along an arm of the state's largest reservoir, Shasta Lake; and at Pyramid Lake in Los Angeles County. They've attributed the deaths of thousands of fish along a section of Clear Lake to toxic blooms. Blue-green algae also has formed in parts of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, prompting health warnings about green, malodorous water in Discovery Bay and Stockton."
Beverley Anderson-Abbs, an environmental scientist with the State Water Board, told AccuWeather that blooms are usually seasonal, "However, these seasons have been getting longer over the past few years as winters have been relatively warm and water, especially in smaller lakes, has been warming earlier in the year and staying warm later."
"It is very possible that this could get worse in the future as temperatures continue to increase and the possibility of future droughts along with that," Anderson-Ebbs said.
Harmful algal blooms can produce toxins that can cause serious illness in people. Wade Hensley, a resident of Discovery Bay, California was hospitalized after microcystin poisoning, a byproduct of algae. According to NPR, his body went numb from the waist down.
The California Department of Public Health states that algae exposure can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions and other health effects but at high levels, "exposure can result in serious illness or death."
Over on the East Coast, the Chesapeake Bay and waterways beyond are seeing bigger and longer lasting algal blooms. The Daily Press reported that a strain of algae called Alexandrium monilatum has spread from Virginia Beach to the James, York and Rappahannock rivers to the Eastern Shore—even as far north as the Potomac River.
The report states that this year's bloom is still going strong even though it usually disappears by early to mid-September. Researchers are now trying to understand if Alexandrium has an impact on marine life. Currently, it does not appear to be harmful to humans.
"So the guidance is you should probably avoid it," Virginia Department of Health's marine science supervisor Todd Egerton told the Daily Press. "But, for the most part, people haven't reported any issues with it."
A number of other drivers can spur algae growth, from warming water to excess nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. Algal blooms have been known to strip oxygen from the water, creating a "dead zone" that threatens fish and other marine life.
- Algal bloom - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia ›
- Harmful Algal Blooms | Nutrient Pollution | US EPA ›
- Harmful Algal Blooms ›
More than 20 states have seen occurrences of toxic algae blooms this summer, which have had far-reaching environmental and human health impacts across the country. The algae blooms can also be found around the world, in all climates from Greenland to Oman.
By Karen Chapman
For a month now, South Florida Atlantic beaches have been blanketed by a sickly green, toxic algae sludge that has kept tourists away and businesses reeling.
Florida has a bigger headache this summer than most states, but algae blooms are hardly unique.
Last week, more than 100 people were sickened by toxic algae in a Utah lake fed by agricultural runoff and treated sewage water. Algae-soiled beaches are a perennial health threat in China and the Baltic region. And just two summers ago, an outbreak in Lake Erie forced the City of Toledo to ban city water for nearly half a million residents.
We know that climate change is further exacerbating our algae problem—but also that there are ways to reduce the runoff that causes water quality issues and kills marine life, year after year.
Algae blooms can be minimized and maybe even prevented if we scale up existing efforts to improve fertilizer use and soil health management—practices that can also save farmers money and boost their yields.
Two Efforts to Curb Runoff Ready to Scale
Two initiatives and private-sector partnerships are making significant headway today. If these efforts are replicated at scale, they could have a national—and even international—impact.
Thanks, in large part, to Walmart's demand for more sustainable grains, food companies such as Campbell's Soup, Unilever, Smithfield Foods and Kellogg's are helping the farmers in their supply chain to reduce fertilizer runoff through a rapidly growing program called SUSTAIN.
Spearheaded by the ag retail cooperative United Suppliers, the plan is to have 10 million acres of farmland using best practices for fertilizer management and soil health by 2020.
Precision agriculture tools can help farmers meet the growing demand for sustainably grown grains, but it's difficult to tell which tools perform as advertised. That's why we developed NutrientStar, an independent program that assesses the fertilizer efficiency claims of products on the market.
What Will It Take?
Supply chains are a powerful tool for igniting change. Companies can signal that fertilizer efficiency and good soil management are not just good for the environment, but also for improving water quality, protecting aquatic species and helping a farmer's yields and bottom line.
But to get a handle on our growing algae problem in the U.S. and overseas, there is no one silver bullet.
We need more food companies to embrace sustainable sourcing, ag retailers to replicate the SUSTAIN model in order to reach millions of growers and farmers to use NutrientStar to understand how tools perform in the field. Agricultural policies must also align with and accelerate, adoption of conservation best practices.
To turn these initiatives into tangible environmental improvements, we must work with and not against farmers and agribusiness. The people who feed our rapidly growing population—and the companies that support them—are and must be, our most important allies.
An illness that might be linked to toxic algae blooms combined with a record number of boat collisions has taken a toll on Florida's manatee population this summer. Since May, eight dead manatees have been found in the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County, a waterway that's been fouled with microscopic toxic algae, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Florida manatee cow and calf.Keith Ramos, USFWS
"We are still narrowing down the cause, but the hypothesis is still that the change of vegetation that the manatees are eating makes them susceptible to complications in their guts," Martine de Wit, lead veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said. De Wit said the manatees have been found with little or no seagrass in their stomachs. The animals digestive systems were filled instead with algae commonly known as seaweed. Researchers say the animals succumb to illness so quickly they drown. Videos from residents have documented the manatee's struggle.
The water coming from Lake Okeechobee contains fertilizer, sewage and stormwater, which is flushed into portions of the Indian River, according to the Sentinel. The stretch of the Indian River has been "a killing field" for brown pelicans, bottlenose dolphins, manatees and many species of fish. The microscopic algae has turned waters a greenish, brown color, some spots as thick as guacamole, as previously reported by EcoWatch.
This isn't the only year toxic algae has impacted manatees. More than 150 manatees have died in the past four years, the Sentinel said.
The manatees are also facing an increased threat from recreational boaters. Manatees are being killed by boat strikes at a record pace this summer, Florida Today reported. "As of July 22, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had counted 71 manatees killed by boats, compared with 58 manatees killed by boats by mid-July 2009. In 2009, a record 97 manatees died from boat strikes," the publication said.
An increase in boat traffic on Florida's waterways—because of less expensive fuel, a mild winter and a hot summer—is causing more collisions with manatees, according to Dr. Katie Tripp, the director of science and conservation at Save the Manatee. Tripp argues the increase in manatee boat strikes shouldn't be attributed to a population increase. "We disagree," said Tripp. "We believe that educated, compliant and watchful vessel operators are key."
Though manatees are already facing enough threats, the species might also lose some of their protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Save the Manatee is urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to change the status of manatees from endangered to threatened.
"We firmly believe downlisting without better controlling the escalating threats is premature," said Tripp. The organization is calling for residents to sign Florida's Clean Water Declaration in the effort to reduce pollutants in the state's waterways.
However, Fish and Wildlife Service officials don't appear to be rethinking their plan. Aerial surveys show the manatee population has risen from 1,267 to more than 6,300 in 25 years, according to the agency website. Officials also believe there is no direct link between manatee deaths and blue green algae blooms in the St. Lucie River and estuary in Martin County Florida. A decision on reclassifying manatees could come as early as next year. A change in the status could effect boating speeds in waterways and access to protected areas.
The toxic algae problem is not limited to Florida. Algae blooms that have been occurring in Lake Erie since 2013 returned last week. Sections of Presque Isle State Park are closed because of the harmful algae blooms, the Erie Times News reported.
Jim Grazio, Great Lakes biologist for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, told the Erie Times, "Harmful algae blooms are capable of producing toxins that can cause skin irritations, nausea or vomiting in humans, and potentially be fatal to animals."
"Some of the features of climate change, such as warmer ocean temperatures and increased light availability through the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, are making conditions more favorable for phytoplankton growth—both toxic and nontoxic algae—in more regions and farther north," Kathi Lefebvre, a biologist at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, told the Times.
The Black and Bloom project aims to understand how dark particles and microorganisms living in the melt water on the surface of Greenland's ice sheet are amplifying its melt. These dark spots lower the albedo of the ice sheet and absorb more sun rays than pure ice does. With increased heat comes increased melt; with more melt comes more microorganisms, which then start the circle all over again.
"We want to get a handle on just how much of the darkness is due to microbes and how much to other physical factors," Martyn Tranter, a biogeochemist at the University of Bristol and the project's principal investigator, told Scientific American.
The team of scientists will spend the next six weeks observing the ice sheet. There will be several other expeditions over the next four years to measure and manipulate the ice surface, according to the project's website. Using the data collected during their expeditions, scientists will be able to predict how the ice sheet will change in the future with on-going climate change.
Tranter said the work could also influence water supply predictions in areas such as the Himalayas where algae bloom-infected glaciers are common, Scientific American reported.
Ice melt in Greenland—which is losing an estimated 287 billion tons of ice every year—has already broken records this year, beginning almost two months early. The Danish Meteorological Institute reported 12 percent of the ice sheet was melting as of April 11. Greenland's melt season typically runs from June to September.
Early melting doesn't come as a surprise with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reporting May's average temperatures were 0.93 C above the 1951-1980 average for the month and June was the warmest on record since 1895 in the U.S., with a monthly average temperature of 71.8 F in Lower 48 states, 3.3 F above normal.
The Black and Bloom project will tweet about its progress on Twitter.