The Weekend Wonk: Toxic Algae, Water, and Climate Change

August 28, 2014

Dr. Alan Steinman is an expert on the Aquatic biology of North America’s Great Lakes.
He has been studying the combined effects of invasive species, warming waters, increasing pollution, and expanding population on the Great Lakes system.

I called Dr. Steinman to discuss the recent cutoff of water supplies to 400,000  residents of Toledo, Ohio, after a noxious bloom of toxin-producing algae covered much of the western end of Lake Erie.

Dr. Steinman was a member of a team which discovered Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii, an invasive, toxin forming micro-organism, formerly associated with more southerly climates, surviving in a tributary of Lake Michigan. In a 2006 paper, Steinman observed:

C. raciborskii is able to produce multiple toxins, and was implicated in one of Australia’s worst cases of human poisoning (Falconer 2001). At least three distinct toxins can be produced by Cylindrospermopsis (Chorus and Bartram 2004): cylindrospermopsin, which targets primarily the liver and kidneys, and anatoxin-a and saxitoxin, which are both neurotoxins.
Because of its potential to produce these toxins and its highly adaptable growth, this genus ranks near the top of the watch list of toxic cyanobacteria for water managers (WHO 1999).

The bloom-forming and toxin-producing cyanobacterium Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii-recently observed in a tributary of Lake Michigan, and on the increase in northern latitudes.



9 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Toxic Algae, Water, and Climate Change”

  1. That’s an impressive amount of information for a 12+ minute interview.

  2. rayduray Says:


    Thanks for the Dr. Steinman interview. He truly is a terrific teacher.

    By the way, the Real News Network seems to be becoming useful on the topic of climate change. Today, they interviewed Dr. Michael Mann on the latest news regarding the IPCC.

    As well, Democracy NOW! has a segment featuring’s Bill McKibben promoting a big climate rally for September 21.

  3. andrewfez Says:

    A while back someone at Harvard quantified the external cost of coal use at something like $300 to $500B. Part of that cost had to do with algal blooms:

    “Nitrogen (N) – Land: Acid rain leaches calcium from forest soils. Water: Appx. 2/3 of the N deposited in U.S. East Coastal waters comes from coal burning. N “fertilization” contributes to the 350 “dead zones” globally and Harmful Algal
    Blooms (red tides) that lead to illness, shellfish bed closures, and harm to the seafood industry and tourism.

    Click to access MiningCoalMountingCosts.pdf

  4. […] Peter Sinclair, interviews Dr. Alan Steinman, an expert on Algae- and Cyanobacteria blooms, with a scope on water security. […]

  5. There’s a rather sad irony in all this. Algae is the one plant that has real potential to be a viable biofuel. All the other candidate fuel crops (ie corn, switch grass, etc) have poor EROEI, deplete the soil of nutrients and/or cause soil erosion, not to mention consuming large amounts of agricultural land and water resources.

    By comparison, algae doesn’t deplete soil and harvesting it can even help to clean up water that has been contaminated by agricultural runoffs.

    Sadly, that’s not what this video is about. It’s about harmful algae, which results from water pollution, which is certainly not a good thing. If there was some way to harvest this algae and process it into biofuel, that would at least give it an upside. Unfortunately, that may not be possible.

    There has been talk of using genetic engineering to try to change some species of algae into a useful biofuel-producing form. I haven’t heard of any real success in doing this, and there may be some considerable risks from even attempting it. I’m afraid that I can’t claim any expertise in this field, but would be interested to hear from anyone who knows something about it.

    • andrewfez Says:

      Ely-Lilly uses vats of bacteria to make human insulin for diabetics. Now that’s a big protein molecule so it may be easier to manipulate a DNA strand to produce such (cut-n-paste)…..

  6. dumboldguy Says:

    I agree with Charles and Ray that Dr. Steinman did a great job. And Peter did a fine job of orchestrating the Q&A and helping Dr. S to get the info out. The info about Phosphorus is not widely known, and the linkage between heavier rainfall, warming water, stratification, oxygen depletion, and algal blooms is “elegant” as the mathemeticians would say.

    I have always wondered why we place so little emphasis on what goes on in the water on this planet. Maybe it’s because we live on land in the gaseous atmosphere and see what lives below the surface of the water as an alien and inhospitable environment. Maybe because there’s so much water and so much of it is “beyond the horizon” that it’s hard to comprehend its importance. In actuality, the terrestrial habitat is just a thin and ephemeral “skin” when compared to the volume of water on the planet and the life therein. The cyanobacteria and phytoplankton are the most important life forms on the planet for many reasons, and we need to start paying them more attention. Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii and friends are just doing their “thing” and expanding to fill new niches as higher temperatures creep ever northward. And yes, that may poison a few humans on occasion. What’s more important is what will happen if the oceans continue to acidify and what impact that will have on their survival (and whether they will be able to continue to do their jobs of producing oxygen and sequestering carbon as they have for hundreds of millions of years).

    Cy brings up biofuels from algae. There is a lot of info out there—-google “Biofuels from algae: challenges and potential NIH Public Access (Michael Hannon et al)” for one good look at the topic. Efforts haven’t met with too much success yet, and algal biofuel would certainly be “renewable” compared to burning fossil fuels, but it will remain a small drop in the bucket compared to the need to stop burning ANY carbon-based fuel, COAL, oil, and natural gas in particular. Beware of “bright-sideness”.

    PS Speaking of “elegant” words, Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii has a nice “ring” to it. It’s way nicer than “pond scum” or “green glop”, and is the kind of thing that gets “stuck” in one’s head and repeated like a catchy tune.

  7. […] recently posted a great, informative video on the toxic algae blooms in the Great Lakes with aquatic biologist Dr. Alan […]

  8. […] I’ve been covering the increasing knock-on impacts of climate change on the heartland – notably the Great Lakes region – where this past summer’s shutdown of Toledo’s water supply due to a climate-fueled toxic algae bloom caught the attention of a lot of bread and butter politicians. […]

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