Toxic algae invading our oceans and seas

[Global] From the Arctic Circle to the coasts of southern Chile, and from the Pacific shores of the U.S. to the shallow seas of the Middle East, toxic algae blooms are erupting pretty much everywhere. They’re also showing up at a scale that’s freaking out marine scientists all over the world.

You may remember Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and its massive problem with blue green algal sludge that we reported on earlier this summer. That doesn’t appear to be an isolated event. It’s also not the only kind of harmful algae that’s wreaking havoc on oceans. Too much of the Pseudo-nitzschia algae, for example, causes a buildup of domoic acid in marine organisms that can be lethal to humans. An outbreak of the algae shut down the Dungeness Crab fishery along much of the West Coast last year.

And there’s plenty more coming.

“There’s no question that we are seeing more harmful blooms in more places, that they are lasting longer, and we’re seeing new species in different areas,” Pat Glibert, a University of Maryland researcher recently told The National Geographic. “These trends are real.”

Gilbert’s words are from a study recently released by National Geographic that reveals some jaw-dropping findings about how widespread these algae blooms have become. Increased use of fertilizers in India are adding fuel to the algal fire off the coasts of the subcontinent, much as they’ve done in the U.S. and Europe. But bodies of water nowhere near big population centers are also being affected. Changing rain patterns in the Himalayas due to a warming climate are lowering the oxygen content in the Arabian Sea, giving rise to big blooms there, for example. Greeenland’s ice sheets are being affected, too.

Fish kills are happening more often and in more places, and they’re devastating animal populations that haven’t traditionally been affected by toxic blooms. Arctic sea mammals, for instance, have been dying from exposure to domoic acid caused by algae, something scientists have never seen before.

Marine scientists still know relatively little about how algal blooms fit into the world’s complex oceanic systems, and some think that it’s possible that these blooms are part of longer patterns that have only recently begun to be studied. Either way, it’s a worrisome trend.

The National Geographic piece lays everything out in a nice, tidy, and terrifying package, well worth a read for anybody who spends much time in the ocean, or who eats things that do.


Photo: It looks like a frame from Van Gogh’s Starry Night, but this enhanced image taken by NASA’s Operational Land Imager (OLI) in August actually reveals a bloom of cyanobacteria swirling in the Baltic Sea. Photo: Norman Kuring, NASA Earth Observatory

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