Lake Erie algae bloom, 2011 (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)

Lake Erie ‘pond scum’ may become the norm

From Discover Magazine comes the disturbing news that a record-breaking algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2011 could repeat itself this year and in years to come. Before you dismiss something as mundane-sounding as an algae bloom, as I was tempted to do, take a look at the photos from NASA’s Earth Observatory:

2011 algae bloom in Lake Erie (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)
Record-breaking 2011 algae bloom visible at west end of Lake Erie (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)
Lake Erie algae bloom, 2011 (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)
Lake Erie algae bloom, 2011 (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)

At its worst in October 2011, this lovely green ooze was 4″ thick and covered some 2,000 square miles (three times more than any previous bloom). You wouldn’t want to run your prized fishing boat through this goop, and you certainly wouldn’t want to swim or wade in it. Drink it? No way. Especially since it’s more than yucky; much of it is toxic. Toxicity levels reached 225 times the World Health Organization’s maximum level for safe swimming and boating.

When the algae gets thick enough, it blocks needed sunlight to other lake flora. Then as the algae dies, it decomposes with the aid of bacteria which consume huge amounts of oxygen, killing fish and other organisms. If the situation gets bad enough, an ecological dead zone will develop.

The primary cause of this nasty muck is fertilizer (nitrogen and phosphorus) run-off from farmland in the lake’s watershed. In the ’60s and ’70s, such nutrient loading in the Great Lakes got so bad that the US and Canadian governments implemented the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. It helped for several decades, but nutrient levels began rising again in the ’90s, not so much from more farms as from changing agriculture techniques.

The record bloom in 2011 resulted from a combination of when and how farmers spread their fertilizer and changing climate conditions — heavy rains, warm summers, and a lack of circulation in the lake. Researchers fear that the increasing use of biofuels will result in more farming acres and that our changing climate means warmer weather and larger, more frequent rainstorms. All of which favors more giant algae blooms like that seen two years ago.

If photos like these had existed in the early ’70s, I might not have complained quite so much when phosphates were removed from my favorite laundry detergent just when I most needed heavy duty cleaning for a young son’s clothes.

6 thoughts on “Lake Erie ‘pond scum’ may become the norm

  1. Have read about this awful development. It adds to my list of things hard to have a “voice” in improving. Though very involved environmentally for many years, I wonder if there is more I can do than sign another petition. And try to have input on the local scene. April 4 there’s a Gun Control Rally at the state legislature about an hour away. Six of us older people raising our signs, our voices.

    Besides Bill McKibben, who speaks for the earth?

    1. I suspect there are as many environmentalists in Colorado as there are in Oregon. It’s hard not to be concerned and aware when you’re surrounded with so much natural beauty. But there’s only so much one person can do. I’m glad to hear you’re going to the gun control rally.

  2. Ohio, and the states that surround it, have a long history indeed when it comes to polluting The Great lakes. I remember hearing rumors about Lake Erie having actually caught fire at one point as a result when I first moved here in 1970. Though that turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration, the truth, as told in When our rivers caught fire, is no less concerning.

    Interestingly enough, as bad as the damage potential from the continuous pollution is, it’s rarely talked about on the local news – at least here in central Ohio. Politics, perhaps? 😕

    1. Out of sight, out of mind for a lot of people. It’s hard to whip up concern for an environmental problem when people don’t see or feel the consequences in their own lives. Politics? For sure! And money. Nobody (eg, farmers) is going to take action if doing so will cost them a lot of money. Environmental action always has a price.

  3. This indeed is serious stuff. Our paper in southwest Michigan gave the story big play. Individual actions can’t make a dent in this problem. Government controls are needed to stave off recurring disasters in Lake Erie.

    1. The Great Lake states, in particular, should be apoplectic about this, for any number of reasons. And isn’t Erie particularly vulnerable because of its relative shallowness? As you say, the government need to up the ante.

... and that's my two cents