Poisonous algae has staked its claim to the Great Lakes, and researchers say it's the worst algal bloom since the 1960s.
- The algae counts in Lake Erie are worse today than when the lake was declared
Lake Erie is looking eerier than usual these days thanks to an uncontrolled outbreak of snotlike, toxic slime.
Consult the above NASA photo from Oct. 9: White-blue swirls in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron mark where the recent Midwest cutoff low stirred up particles of quartz and silt. But then there are bile-green drifts of ooze discoloring a huge part of western Lake Erie and most likely the entirety of Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay. (Large photo.) It's so thick in places that it's almost like an automotive floor mat. The Creature from the Black Lagoon would leap with both webbed feet at the chance to own beachfront property in Ohio right now:
Algae in Lake Erie's Maumee Bay. (Photo courtesy of NWF / S. Bihn, Lake Erie Waterkeeper)
What's behind this liquidy feculence, which rates as the worst Great Lakes algal bloom since the 1960s? We are, it seems.
Farm and grass fertilizers as well as discharges from sewage plants have been seeping into the lakes for years, forming a delicious nutrient broth for hungry algae. It's a problem that D.C.-area residents know too well: The Chesapeake Bay is seriously ill with a case of the algal blooms, and in August there was a report of rash-causing algae floating in the Potomac River. (D.C. actually has quite a history with algae. The waters below the Potomac were lousy with algae mere decades ago, and some of it apparently found its way into the water supply, sickening nearly two-dozen dialysis patients in 1974.)
The species befouling the Great Lakes is microcystis aeruginosa, a toxic organism that leaks a chemical damaging to the livers of fish. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, microcystis is a "common species of cyanobacteria (often called blue-green algae) that blooms in the fresh and low salinity portions of the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays and can become quite striking if it floats and forms a surface scum." Cattle and dogs that drink water contaminated with this paintlike stuff can die; humans will get perhaps the worst indigestion of their lives.
A recent report from the National Wildlife Federation claims that this algal bloom is as bad, or worse, than the incredibly nasty one that (along with sewage contamination and industrial waste) practically killed Lake Erie in the 1960s and '70s. Back then, a thick carpet of algae capped the surface of the lake while as many as 30,000 "sludge worms" per square meter squirmed in the filth on the bottom. It's not exactly a time to be nostalgic about.
For a comprehensive look at this icky problem, grab your reading glasses and open up the full NWF report.