Lake Erie’s algal blooms: a cause for concern

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

A view of algae-infested Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

A view of algae-infested Lake Erie. Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

In a story from the Great Lakes Echo, Lake Erie has yet again produced record-high algae blooms. In 2011, the amount was the worst ever recorded with 2013 coming in close.

Lake Erie has been used as a source of water for farming and drinking and the increasing toxicity poses harm to the environment.

According to Discovery News, algae blooms are a natural part in the life of an aging lake, but have been greatly increased due to human activity.

An explanation of algae

Rick Stumpf, oceanographer from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration examines a water sample from Lake Erie. Photo by Karen Schaefer  courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

Rick Stumpf, oceanographer from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration examines a water sample from Lake Erie. Photo by Karen Schaefer courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

Algae are common members of aquatic communities. Often in the form of green plants like seaweed, these plants grow and are green because they contain chlorophyll. Algae usually doesn’t pose problems in bodies of water, but algae blooms are of greater concern. These green-blue scum masses are full of harmful cyanobacteria, containing threatening cyanotoxins.

The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines cyanotoxins as “a diverse group of chemical substances that are categorized by their specific toxic effects. In humans, cyanotoxins can affect the nervous system, gastrointestinal system, liver and increase tumor growth.

Click here to read the fact sheet which includes symptoms of cyanotoxin consumption and contact and treatment.

The toxic dangers in Lake Erie

The problem facing Lake Erie is not only that it’s turning a pernicious green color, it’s under silent attack by toxins in water runoff making their way into the lake. Fertilizer from agricultural practices in recent years has contributed to this issue. Climate change may also be contributing to the issues surrounding Lake Erie, causing more storms, higher water temperatures and less control of fertilizer runoff.

A boat speeds through algae blooms in Lake Erie, 2011. Photo by Peter Essick, National Geographic.

A boat speeds through algae blooms in Lake Erie, 2011. Photo by Peter Essick, National Geographic.

Nutrients in the fertilizer runoff have contributed greatly to the growth of cyanobacteria, fertilizing the toxin rather than the intended on-land crops. Not only is this bacteria harmful for humans to consume in drinking water, it creates “dead zones” in different areas of lakes. A dead zone happens when the bacteria consumes most of the oxygen in a particular area of a lake, so that other organisms are deprived of that oxygen and die.

A plan of action 

In Michigan, scientists hope to continue monitoring the water, although the high amount of algae blooms has been a great cause of stress and concern. Recently, President Obama reauthorized a federal law which allocates $82 million for studying and monitoring algae blooms. This time, the Great Lakes were included.

 

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