Don’t Go in the Water: Heat, Hydrology Favor Toxic Blooms

July 17, 2019

Reporting on algae blooms around the world often does not cover the climate connection.

The bad news about this year’s Lake Erie algal toxins is that the harmful blooms are likely to be “significant” and could range up to 9 on a severity index that has only gone over 10 once.

That would make this year’s algal blooms potentially the worst since 2015, when they hit 10.5 on the severity index, the highest ever recorded.

The even worse news is that this year’s blooms — both in western Lake Erie and in Sandusky Bay, where they are produced by different types of toxin-producing algae — are already yielding small amounts of microcystins, the liver toxin that can kill pets and livestock, close beaches and threaten public water supplies.

And even as the toxic algae return to threaten one of Ohio’s most important economic and natural-resource assets, the state lacks a clear plan of attack for reducing their cause: phosphorus and nitrogen runoff.

The chief culprits in this runoff are known: Prior studies by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency identified fertilizer, manure and other runoff from farms and livestock operations in the Maumee basin as the main sources feeding western Lake Erie’s toxic algal blooms.

But opponents to credible plans to reduce this runoff are powerful. An effort by Gov. John Kasich last year, late in his administration, to kickstart the planning and regulatory process needed to reduce Maumee basin runoff was stymied by powerful agricultural interests.

The editorial notes the connection between warmer waters and algae blooms, but does not mention the word “climate”.

There are other ways that warmer, polluted waters can kill.


Six beaches around Saint-Brieuc in the French region of Brittany have been closed to the public due to unmanageable quantities of sea lettuce, which local campaign groups say may be linked to two recent deaths in the area.

On July 6 an 18-year-old oyster farmer was found dead in nearby Morlaix Bay and initial tests showed that he may have drowned, according to the local prosecutor’s office. 

However local campaign group Halte aux Marée Vertes claims that the victim may have been poisoned by hydrogen sulphide, a toxic gas released as the sea lettuce decomposes, reports CNN affiliate BFMTV.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office told CNN that there are concerns over the algae and its potential effects, but he will wait until the results of ongoing tests on the victim are released before discussing more specific information.

The recent death of a 70-year-old man in Douarnenez Bay raised similar concerns, according to Jean Hascoet, a member of the NGO Eau et Rivières, which has petitioned authorities to investigate both incidents.

“Algae when they are alive, they are plants and they do not pose a problem,” Laverman told CNN. “But when they are dead, they degrade.”

When the sea lettuce breaks down it releases hydrogen sulphide, or H2S, she explained, a toxic gas with a smell that has been compared to rotten eggs.

“People can smell the smell of H2S but are not aware that it’s a very toxic gas smell,” said Laverman.

Ines Leraud, an investigative journalist who recently published a book on the algae problems in Brittany, told BFMTV the problem is worsening due to climate change.

Normally dead algae is collected from the beaches every morning but there is so much this year that it’s not possible to keep up, she said.

Leraud believes that there is a lack of transparency around the issue.

“There are several taboos in this story: there is a taboo on the origins of the algae and there is a taboo on the effects of the algae,” she said.

9 Responses to “Don’t Go in the Water: Heat, Hydrology Favor Toxic Blooms”

  1. jimbills Says:

    There’s no good news there, because to prevent that from happening again, we’d need either: no more flooding events, or much less nitrogen and phosphorus use for agriculture. The latter can’t happen – much of the midwest is functionally dead soil. It’s been long since depleted of nutrients and can only grow crops because of the nitrogen, phosphorus, and other feed-ins. The former – well, good luck. Even without flooding events, the Gulf has seen ever increasing dead zones from average runoff.

    Here’s NOAA from 2017:

    Along the Chesapeake Bay, they’ve made strides to limit agricultural runoff, but it still exists to a large degree, and they also contend with significant storm drain runoff sending pollutants from the cities and suburbs.

    More rain there still means more pollution:

    And if it rains there only a half inch, don’t swim in the water.

    The only real solutions are either to completely remake the agricultural system from industrial farming to a permaculture type of system (but it takes a long time to rebuild soil health), ban extra usage of crops such as ethanol and corn syrup, or have much fewer mouths to feed – all of them close to the last things we’d consider.

    • rsmurf Says:

      The soil being depleted also means what they grow is more just a facsimile of real food. The chemicals make the stuff grow but the nutritional value and taste is nothing like the real thing!

    • rsmurf Says:

      Pretty much we have no shot (until we have a super disaster with millions dead) and even then we might not do anything!

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Have no fear, smurfy—the super disaster is coming, with millions of dead. We shall see if it motivates us to do anything.

        I suspect not, since it is most likely to occur in one of those shithole countries that so many of our congresswomen come from rather than in WHITE America.

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          India’s government as a whole might, just might, be getting a wakeup call from the disparate problems with excessive monsoon flooding in one part (shared with Nepal and Bangladesh) and an acute water shortage threatening 8 million people in metro area of Chennai (once Madras).

          Many more Indian cities are projected to have water shortages for a combination of climate change and basic mismanagement (e.g., development in water catchment wetlands) reasons.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      FWIW, this part of the Gulf Coast (aka “the redneck Riviera”) doesn’t usually get hit by the dead zone. The widespread excessive rainfall across practically the whole Mississippi River catchment area has led to the opening of both the Morganza Spillway (draining south) and the Bonnet Carré Spillway (draining into Lake Pontchartrain and toward Mississippi beaches.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Yet another thread in the vast web that constitutes the biosphere shows signs of unraveling. Lake Erie and the Mississippi gulf coast? It’s happening all over the world—-I had mentioned on another thread that some of the largest and most popular lakes in NJ had been closed because of algal blooms. Add Greenwood Lake, the fourth largest in the state, to the list. Lake Hopatcong, the largest, has been closed for days now.

    Just got back from a trip to see family in South Jersey. Both grandsons, who have has summer jobs as lifeguards at Atlantic Ocean beaches for the past few years, report that the water doesn’t seem as clear as it has during recent summers.

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