Satellite photo of a massive bloom of toxic algae in Lake Erie in 2011.

NASA Earth Observatory

Satellite photo of a massive bloom of toxic algae in Lake Erie in 2011.

Lake Erie Will Become Toxic-Algae Breeding Ground: Scientists

With spring imminent—the equinox occurs on Wednesday March 20—many are watching for the profusion of blossoms that erupt over much of Turtle Island this time of year.

But along the shores of Lake Erie, many are looking with trepidation to a bloom of another kind: Experts say that this year’s spring rains will most likely cause an outbreak of toxic algae.

For years, Lake Erie has been plagued with a thick coat of blue-green algae each summer that can be harmful to humans, and occasionally even deadly to animals. Among the areas affected by these toxic algae blooms are the Seneca Tribal Grounds, namely Cattaraugus Reservation in New York. 

Spring rain levels will influence the severity of the issue, The New York Times reported recently. Frequent, heavy rainfall, which is on the menu, increases the amount of the summer algae bloom, and the National Weather Service predicts very wet weather for the area in the coming months. With a large amount of rain, these blue-green algae blooms grow abundantly, as evidenced in 2011, when they covered one-sixth of the lake’s surface (approximately 120 miles) after the area’s wettest spring on record, according to The New York Times.

The culprit is the algae microcystis aeruginosa, which is toxic to mammals because of a liver toxin it manufactures, NASA said in a statement describing an especially bad 2011 outbreak. Moreover, dead algae sinks to the lake bottom, where it is consumed by bacteria that also consumes oxygen. This deadens the lake, compounding the problem, NASA said. Canada's Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba is also in algae's grip, The New York Times noted, as are some bays in Lake Huron. Erie, as the smallest and shallowest of the Great Lakes, has slightly higher temperatures than they do, according to The Windsor Star

At the end of February, scientists from the International Joint Commission, formed in 1909 between the U.S. and Canada to care for the countries' common waterways, gathered in Windsor, Ontario, to examine the sources of phosphorous, which the blooms thrive on. The issue began in the 1960s, when pollutants and sewage dumping was unregulated, and the two countries spent billions of dollars on cleanup, the Associated Press reported. Though the cleanup was successful, the algae have returned with a vengeance, thanks to phosphorous runoff from new farming techniques, as well as climate change.

"We've seen this lake go from the poster child for pollution problems to the best example in the world of ecosystem recovery," said Jeffrey M. Reutter, director of the Sea Grant College Program at Ohio State University, to The New York Times. "Now it's headed back again."

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