Water Runoff Pumping Algae Blooms, From Great Lakes to Gulf

June 27, 2019

I spoke a few years ago to a front line expert on aquatic biology and algae blooms – Dr Alan Steinman, who has been doing critical sampling of Great Lakes micro-organisms for many years. His take is worth reviewing, in light of this year’s record breaking rains across the Midwest.

We keep learning it over and over again, pull on one thread, and the whole web quivers.

Inside Climate News:

The historic rains that flooded millions of acres of Midwestern cropland this spring landed a blow to an already struggling farm economy.

They also delivered bad news for the climate.

Scientists project that all that water has flushed vast amounts of fertilizer and manure into waterways, triggering a potentially unprecedented season of algae blooms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted that the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico—a massive overgrowth of algae—could become the size of Massachusetts this summer, coming close to a record set in 2017, and that an algae bloom in Lake Erie could also reach a record size.  

“Every place in the Midwest is wet,” said John Downing, an aquatic ecologist and director of the Minnesota Sea Grant. “There will be a terrific amount of algae blooms.”

As rain washes nutrients—mostly fertilizers and manure—into streams, rivers and lakes, those nutrients stoke the growth of algae, a process known as eutrophication that depletes oxygen in the water. That algae can choke the waterways, killing aquatic life and making water unsafe to swim in or drink. 

These algae-filled waterways also emit methane, a powerful climate pollutant. Atmospheric methane has shot up over the past 12 years, threatening global emissions-reduction goals. Downing and his colleagues have determined that algae blooms could accelerate methane emissions even more.

“We not only lose good water,” he said, “we also exacerbate climate change.”

In a paper published earlier this year, Downing and his colleagues projected that, as the global population grows and more nutrients enter waterways over the next century,  eutrophication could increase methane emissions from inland waters by 30 to 90 percent. 

“We’ve projected out, based on population growth and food production, how much we can expect eutrophication to impact the climate,” Downing said. “The rates are huge.”

Predictions for increasingly heavy rains in the Midwest in coming decades, along with increased heat, could further drive algae blooms.

“Large rains are causing a lot more run-off, and with climate change, we’re having hotter temperatures,” said Anne Schechinger, an analyst for the Environmental Working Group. “You have these big rain events, and then heat mixes with these nutrients and makes them explode in all these water bodies.”

The group launched a map last year that tracks media reports of algae blooms. So far this year, Schechinger noted, it has tracked at least 30 algae blooms through the beginning of June, including some that never went away over the winter when they usually subside with cooler temperatures.

Flooding Could Also Mean Less Fertilizer

The extent of this year’s algae blooms depends on the weather. If it’s cooler than expected, the blooms might not proliferate as much. The delayed planting could also mean that farmers use less fertilizer this year.

“It depends on how much the rain continues,” said Bruno Basso, a professor of ecosystems science at Michigan State University. “Not having things in the ground, that’s positive, because farmers won’t put fertilizer on the ground.”

“Large rains are causing a lot more run-off, and with climate change, we’re having hotter temperatures,” said Anne Schechinger, an analyst for the Environmental Working Group. “You have these big rain events, and then heat mixes with these nutrients and makes them explode in all these water bodies.”

The group launched a map last year that tracks media reports of algae blooms. So far this year, Schechinger noted, it has tracked at least 30 algae blooms through the beginning of June, including some that never went away over the winter when they usually subside with cooler temperatures.

The extent of this year’s algae blooms depends on the weather. If it’s cooler than expected, the blooms might not proliferate as much. The delayed planting could also mean that farmers use less fertilizer this year.

“It depends on how much the rain continues,” said Bruno Basso, a professor of ecosystems science at Michigan State University. “Not having things in the ground, that’s positive, because farmers won’t put fertilizer on the ground.”

Fertilizer, however, is not the only problem. Environmental groups blame the rise of algae blooms in certain regions, particularly around Lake Erie, on the proliferation of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

“We found this huge explosion of animal operations since the mid-1990s,” Schechinger said. “We think manure is the most important element of what’s contributing to algae in a lot of these places.”

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8 Responses to “Water Runoff Pumping Algae Blooms, From Great Lakes to Gulf”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    “We keep learning it over and over again, pull on one thread, and the whole web quivers”.

    Actually, it seems like that should be “We keep ignoring the evidence over and over again”. The web will quiver only so long before it starts to unravel, and then it will be too late. The likely huge increase in the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is going to destroy the livelihoods of lots of fishermen and shrimpers—-maybe they can be “supported” by the government the same way the corn and soybean farmers in the midwest will be—-rather than spend $$$ to head off the impacts of climate change, instead use the $$$ to “clean up” forever afterwards (a brilliant plan worthy of a stable genius)

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    News from my home state of NJ—-a beautiful lake that i used to catch trout in and waterski on will now make you sick if you even touch its water. Thank you, climate change.

    https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lake-hopatcong-new-jersey-largest-lake-cyanobacteria-harmful-algal-bloom-officials-warn/

  3. retiredinny Says:

    Your headline is misleading, although I understand your meaning. The Great Lakes do not contribute to the algae bloom in the gulf. There is only one significant diversion out of the Great Lakes into the Mississippi watershed, the Chicago Ship Canal, and it’s outflow is miniscule compared to the rest of the 40% of the lower 48 states that drain into the gulf.

    Yes, there are algae blooms in Lake Erie, but that is downstream from the Chicago Ship Canal, and ultimately flows, along with all other Great Lakes water, out the St Lawrence River.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      you mistake my meaning.
      Algae blooms are a big problem in the great lakes.
      They are also a problem in the gulf and elsewhere.
      The link is not a physical canal – it’s global climate change.

  4. colettebytes Says:

    Our modern farming and factory line animal food production has wandered away from sustainable, earth friendly, humane practices. It depletes soil structure, poisons water courses and for the animals, produces unnecessary suffering whilst exponentially producing fatalistic greenhouse gasses.

    Clean it up? That is almost laughable. With current farming practices… The land is maybe viable for crop growth for 15 to 20 years. After that, the nutrients are completely gone and the water filled with poisonous run-off inorganic fertiliser products. Fishermen beware… Your catch is already filled with poison. You cannot clean this up unless their is a huge shift back to organic farming. Will that feed the world? I am not sure that Americans care much beyond their own borders. 😑

  5. dumboldguy Says:

    I have said before that what’s happening unnoticed to the “little guys” in the biosphere is perhaps what is going to get us—-hardly suspected and little understood by the mall shoppers and reality TV watchers, the bacteria, fungi, and algae have been under attack in the last 200 years as they have never been during their billions of years of living on the planet (and actually shaping it’s environment for all the “big stuff” that we like to go to zoos to look at)

    Look up PSP and Alexandrium for a glimpse at what the extreme warming in the Arctic is doing to the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska—the world at large likely won’t even know about this and all the other “blooms” around the planet until it’s too late. Same goes for CB’s comment about soil degradation—-maybe we’ll pay attention when we start to starve do death.


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