Lake Erie, Birds, and Earthworms: this week in environmental news

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Lake Erie algal bloom in 2015. Image: NASA

Michigan declares Lake Erie impaired (Great Lakes Echo): Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder designated that state’s portion of Lake Erie as impaired on November 10. Lake Erie has been threatened by toxic algae blooms for several years, threatening drinking water quality in Toledo and limiting recreational uses. Within the past year, the governors of Michigan and Ohio and the premier of Ontario signed a memorandum of understanding acknowledging the threat of toxic algae. They set a goal to reduce phosphorous loading up to 40 percent by 2025.

Toxins kill thousands of birds along Lake Michigan shore (Great Lakes Echo): Since 2006, dead birds have been washing up on Lake Michigan beaches. But this fall has been exceptionally grim, with up to five thousand birds being found dead along the shore. Researchers say the birds are dying because of a toxin called avian botulism, which can form on the lake bed under certain conditions. Botulism forms when there’s a lack of oxygen in the water. Even as botulism begins to form, it’s down near toxic valleys that many small fish continue to eat, consuming the poison as they feed. Local and migratory birds that land on Lake Michigan, tired and famished from their journey, consume small fish like the invasive Round Goby. Having eaten the infected fish, the birds become sick and die out on the lake due to paralyzing effects.

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Restoration projects have made it possible for safe water recreational use in the Sarnia region of the St. Clair River. Image: Megan McDonnell

U.S., Canada battle St. Clair River’s polluted legacy (Great Lakes Echo): The St. Clair River that connects Lake Huron with Lake St. Clair has a long history of environmental problems. They are challen­­­­­­­­­­ges as diverse as E. coli bacteria that shut down beaches, industrial pollution by PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury contamination so severe that residents are advised to limit their consumption of locally caught fish. In recent years cleanup and sediment remediation projects have vastly improved the river and it is beginning to flourish once again. There have been more than 280 fish and aquatic wildlife habitat restoration projects on the St. Clair River, 12 of which were shoreline restoration projects.

Sea lamprey, Asian carp, zebra mussels and earthworms? (Great Lakes Echo): The wriggly soil-dwellers may not have the bad rep of some of their invasive counterparts, but they do have the power to change entire ecosystems. Now a recent study has found that an abundance of earthworms causes a decrease in the small plant matter scattered on the forest floor. By eating away at what scientists call “fine root biomass” worms can significantly change the forest. Worms start a bottom-up chain reaction that can bring about fundamental environmental changes. They affect what plants are able to root and grow in the soil. The kinds of plants that grow affect which species of animals can live in a forest.

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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.