Normally I don’t have trouble finding things to write about, there are scores of scientific topics the public has many misconceptions about and fortunately sometimes an article lands neatly on my lap. This summer, the hottest in recorded history, has had an alarming amount of algae blooms infesting reservoirs, lakes and municipal water supplies, not just in the country by near where I live in Utah. Understanding what these blooms are, why they are a problem and why they happen is arguably of great importance.
The first thing that should be cleared up is that Blue-Green Algae, which makes up these blooms, are not algae at all. In fact they aren’t even in the same kingdom as algae, because they are bacteria, very cool bacteria.
Blue-Green Algae or Cyanobacteria is a type of bacteria which produces its energy from sunlight through photosynthesis and is extremely common. You owe your entire existence to cyanobacteria, if not for it, our planet would not have become an oxygen-rich biosphere all those hundreds of millions of years ago as evolution kicked off the photosynthesis-fest, which jumped-started complex life and eventually you.
Today cyanobacteria live, mostly in fresh stagnant or slow-moving water, absorbing sunlight and producing chemicals that are dangerous to our own biology. Toxic chemicals like microcystin which can wreak havoc on your liver among several other necessary organs.
The reason we are seeing so many more algal blooms in our lakes is due to a few factors. First, this is the warmest year in recorded history thanks to the combination of climate change and El-Nino. It’s no secret the photosynthetic organisms enjoy the warmth. Second, cyanobacteria also utilize nitrogen and phosphorous as energy sources which is in extremely abundant supply due to agricultural runoff. Short answer, our fault.
While algal blooms have been common place in the past, we are seeing a dramatic pickup in both frequency and intensity. What can be done to prevent cyanobacteria algal blooms or possibly mitigate their effects? The answer is still being sought after, the climate continues to warm and we can’t survive without our agricultural infrastructure. But if and when we figure this out, will we be willing to comply? Our track record on that matter is great.