Combating Algae Blooms Worldwide.


In the beginning

Algae is one of the oldest organisms on Earth, some species date back 3.5 billion years.  At some point algae acquired the capability of photosynthesis, and the release of molecular Oxygen (O2) into the atmosphere caused the first mass extinction event making it possible for animal life to exist.  We owe our very existence to algae.  We commonly credit land plants and forests with being the "lungs" of our planet but algae, was actively increasing the oxygen content in our atmosphere for 2.5 billion years before land plants evolved from... algae.

Bloom basics

There are four ingredients to an algae bloom; sunlight (obviously) warm water, carbon dioxide and fertilizer.  When these four ingredients are at the right levels, algae has the capacity to double its mass every six hours.  If we consider that the trend-lines for three out of the four of these ingredients is sharply upwards, summers world-wide today are longer and hotter, CO2 growth is accelerating, and fertilizer use is increasing.  It is easy to see that we are looking at perfect storm conditions for explosive algae growth world-wide.

It should be remembered that algae blooms are a natural component to a healthy lake ecosystem; and a lake may experience dozens of low level algae blooms in a season without any harm.  As excess nutrients enter the lake the algae responds by reproducing rapidly to consume the nutrients.  Once these excess nutrients are consumed, the algae "dies back" to a normal, sustainable, level.  In one respect this is similar to the Inflammation Response in our own bodies.  When tissues are injured, a process begins to get the resources needed to repair the damage and fight any possible infections.  The Inflammation Response becomes a problem however, when the trauma is too extensive, or is triggered by a chronic condition, In the first case it can put the body into shock, and in the secod a chronic Inflammation Response can cause damage to other tissues throughout the body.

Algae, like all photosynthetic organisms, live with a very slight (about 1%) energy surplus.  When exposed to sunlight the algae take in water and carbon dioxide, and utilizing photosynthesis transforms these into carbohydrates to fuel the algae's growth.  The byproduct of this process is waste molecular oxygen.  The process of photosynthesis however is very damaging to the algae, and much of the energy gained is consumed rebuilding the algae, giving it a fractional energy gain of about 1%.  In the rebuilding phase the algae takes back some of the oxygen.  When the algae dies, bacteria consume the algae.  This process further depletes the oxygen available in the water.  As long as the algaebloom is not too large, this oxygen depletion (hypoxia) is localized and temporary.  Current flows will mix oxygen rich water from other parts of the lake, and some oxygen will be absorbed from the atmosphere.

When the quantity of nutrients is too high, a catastrophic level of algae growth will be triggered.  The water will become like pea soup.  At these levels the fish in the water will be unable to find their customary food items, mosquitoes will proliferate, and bottom dwelling plants will begin to die for lack of sunlight.  In the terminal stage, thick floating mats of decomposing algae will begin to form at the surface, further damaging the ecosystem.  At this point the water becomes completely depleted of dissolved oxygen and becomes a “Dead-Zone”, killing all the fish and most of the other organisms.  As the algae decomposes phosphorus will again be released into the water and flow downstream where it can trigger other algae blooms.  Eventually the phosphorus reaches the coastal wetlands.  Ninety percent of life in the ocean depends on a coastal wetland for some portion of it’s life, so the “Dead-Zones” triggered in coastal wetlands are particularly damaging.  In 2017 the “Dead-Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico was 8,200 square miles, and is becoming larger each year.

Many coastal waters world-wide are becoming dangerously hypoxic and in 2017 over 400 “Dead-Zones” were reported.

The long-term repercussions of these repeated coastal dead-zones has impacts beyond their effect on our fisheries.  It is becoming evident in the health of marine mammals and their annual migration patterns as well.  For the first time, during the 2017-2018 North Atlantic Right Whale breeding season, no calves were born.  This only happens when the females are starving.  For the last five years every calf born in the Pacific North-West resident, fish-eating, population of Killer Whales, has died because their mothers were unable to produce enough milk to feed them.  In March 2016, thirteen starving Sperm Whales beached on the coast of Germany.  In December 2016 an astonishing 337 Sei Whales died in Chile, their deaths have been linked to a massive Algae Bloom that made the fish toxic.

The ultimate cause of the Algae Bloom crisis is the quantity of phosphorus entering our waterways.  Ironically a major source is farmers growing corn for ethanol and the switch to environmentally friendly "no till" agriculture.  This switch has lessened the soil loss but has increased the quantity of phosphorus in the water since the fertilizers are more likely to be washed off the fields in heavy rains, which are more frequent due to climate change.  But farmers are by no means the only source of the problem.  Home owners over use lawn fertilizers that wash into streams.  Ponds, lakes and fresh water reservoirs are inviting to large populations of birds that are protected against predators, these concentrations are detrimental to water quality.  The housing boom in Florida led to vast numbers of homes being built with poorly designed and poorly constructed septic systems that are increasingly leaching into the groundwater.  Most significantly, untreated raw sewage flows into our rivers every time it rains. In Philadelphia, for instance, 60% of homes have their rain gutters directly connected to the sewage line, when a heavy rain overtaxes the sewage system, the mixture overflows directly into the adjacent rivers.  Fixing all of these issues is critical to really addressing the Algae Bloom crisis, but it will likely cost over a trillion dollars in infrastructure repairs alone.  Not to mention figuring a way to fix the fertilizer problem on farms, building vegetative buffers around all lakes and streams to absorb nutrients and convincing homeowners not to fertilize their lawns.  This is truly a "Death by a thousand cuts".

Current Algae News

Microcystis sp is a blue-green algae that can produce toxins which are highly poisonous and often fatal to pets. 'Most poisonous indigenous plant'.
The authority postponed multiple times the application of alum, which helps reduce the algae in the lake. “The cause of the floating alum floc shown ...
Toxic algae found at Table Mountain may impact holiday weekend and summer plans.
Harmful algal blooms (HABs) can cause massive fish kills all over the world. However, some commercially caught species are safe to eat.
Kansas recognizes three advisory levels: A Hazard status indicates that a harmful algal bloom is present, and extreme conditions exist. Signage should ...
Contact with the water, especially visible signs of blue-green algae and harmful algal blooms (HABs), should be avoided. A HAB may appear as foam, ...
A harmful algal bloom (HAB) may look like foam, scum, or paint floating on the water and be colored blue, bright green, brown, or red.
Mayor Natalie Magdeburger noted that the town is awaiting response from DNREC, which controls state waterways and responds to algae bloom occurrences.
Contact with these toxins can cause symptoms like stomach upset, rashes, and respiratory irritation. Dogs who ingest harmful algal blooms can also get ...
Public health officials say climate change likely explains an early blue-green algae bloom on Lake Mendota, which led to a closure of Spring ...
Once again, it is time to keep an eye out for harmful algae (cyanobacteria) blooms in Washington lakes and rivers. As the weather heats up, ...
Algae was found "which can produce toxins that are highly poisonous and often fatal to pets".
The Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County has issued a Health Alert for the presence of harmful blue-green algal toxins at Lake ...
Their scientists said there was no visual evidence of a harmful algae bloom on the pond. However, they did see some growth that they think was ...
Algae biofuel is a green energy source, and the early 2000s saw a lot of hype around the promise of algae as an alternative to fossil fuels.
Heavy spring rains and warm temperatures have created ideal conditions for the unsightly, toxic algae blooms, as well as weeds.
CHICO — Managing algae with… bubbly water? A research project funded by UC Davis aims to test the performance of air diffusers that will be installed ...
Kansas experts say now is the time harmful algal blooms are starting to develop in earnest:
'By reducing high amounts of phosphorus ... we're essentially able to reduce the growth of blue-green algae,' explains Manitoba student Baljot Rai ...
Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns, mainly caused by human activities, especially the burning of fossil ...

Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation

“Algae blooms represent an under-recognized global crisis”
Jim King, Chairman of the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation.

The George Barley Water Prize

On March 22, 2017 the Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation (Click Here)joined with the Everglades Foundation (Click Here) to sponsor "The George Barley Water Prize" (Click Here) offering a $10 million prize for "the person or team that develops the most costeffective technology to remove phosphorus from freshwater bodies." The contest started with 99 teams from 13 countries and at this point(April 2018) has been narrowed down to 10 teams who are beginning field testing of their solutions.

Scotts Miracle-Gro has also produced 2 wonderful videos about the problems of Harmful Algae Blooms(HAB).


I find it encouraging that Scotts Miracle-Gro recognizes the true extent of the algae bloom problem and its ultimate causation, however I see three problems with the competition.  First, the emphasis on “The One Best Solution” makes it seem that there will be a “One Best” solution.  In reality the problem is a “death by 100,000 cuts,” and each of these smaller issues needs to be highlighted and addressed.  Secondly, the competition attracted 99 entries.  This is woefully inadequate, and speaks more to the lack of public awareness of the problem.  For the most part, algae blooms are only mentioned in local conversations regarding their effect on a local lake or stream.  Harmful Algae Blooms need to enter the conversation as a co-equal consequence of climate change.  Perhaps it should be the number one consequence, since it is happening every day in communities world-wide.  This prize should have attracted 10,000 entries, not a mere 99.  I have been investigating this problem for over 10 years, and I only learned of the competition six months after it had been announced!  My third issue would be the focus on "technology to remove phosphorus from freshwater".  A worthy goal to be sure, but this ultimately means treating untold billions of gallons of water every year, and most of the proposed solutions involve chemically binding the phosphorus.  Since there is no magical “phosphorus magnet” that will attract the phosphorus to a central location for removal, this solution would require application throughout the water-body being treated and repeated applications would be required, since the binding agent will saturate with phosphorus and stop being effective.  New flows of contaminated water will be constantly flowing into the water-body.  If only there were some natural organism that would locate the phosphorus for us and consume it, then we would be able to see where the problem was and to harvest that organism once it has done its job…  Oh wait!  There is such an organism!  It’s Algae!