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Warming climate is helping to spread toxic algae on Lake Erie

By Karen Graham     Oct 14, 2013 in Environment
Toledo - A warming climate, coupled with questionable soil management practices, has created ideal conditions for an explosion of toxic blue-green algae growth on Lake Erie. Alarm sirens blare as government officials work to find a solution to the algae problem.
It was an omen of things to come, according to many scientists. They were talking about the worst algae bloom ever recorded in the history of Lake Erie. The toxic bloom covered nearly one-fifth of the lake's surface in the summer and fall of 2011, clogging boat motors, driving away the fish, and washing ashore in ghastly green rotting clumps.
The algae is microcystis, a very toxic form of blue-green algae that can cause numbness, nausea, and vomiting in humans. The algae bloom grows so thick it soon takes on the look and consistency of pea soup. Not only has it driven off fish, but the algae has also devastated the tourist trade, particularly charter boat fishing. Lake Erie is called the Walleye Capital of the World, but fishermen say the algae is making it tough to make a living. Paul Pacholski, Vice-President of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, had this to say about the problem: “When you have algae so thick you can actually write your name with a fishing pole in it, people think of it as going back to the '60s when it was called a dead lake.”
In a study released earlier this year compiled by nearly two-dozen scientists, the 2011 algae bloom was the result of a combination of natural and man-made factors. Natural, being an increase in the number and intensity of severe storms producing more than 3-inches of rain in a 24-hour period, and slowly rising water temperatures. Ongoing studies conducted by Stone Laboratory on South Bay Island on Lake Erie have also shown the number of severe storms has increased by 50 percent over the past 50 years.
Farming practices are an issue needing to be addressed if the U.S. and Canadian governments want to reduce the levels of phosphorus pouring into the waters of Lake Erie. One practice that began in the 1990's, called no-till farming is used to prevent or reduce erosion. It consists of planting seeds in small holes in ground that has not been plowed. The problem with this method is that fertilizer ends up staying on the top of the ground.
Other farming practices in question include applying fertilizer in the fall, and applying manure without plowing it under. The chemicals and animal waste lay on top of the ground, and only leech into the soil over a long period of time. In the meantime, the many hard rains being experienced wash everything into nearby streams where large volumes of that phosphorus eventually run into the lake.
The biggest concern being expressed by many municipalities on the shores of Lake Erie is the safety of the drinking water. Any number of cities pull water from the lake and run it through water treatment plants. Toledo, Ohio is one of those cities, and earlier this month Toledo asked for $1 million to purchase chemicals for water treatment because the risk of toxic algae blooms on Lake Erie has increased. Toledo gets most of its drinking water from the western basin of the lake, the same area seeing some of the worst algae blooms.
Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency today is proposing that limits be set on the pollution of streams feeding into Lake Erie as part of an attempt to cut the growth of the toxic blue-green algae in the western and central basins of the lake. Federal regulators are looking at the state's plan.
More about Algae, Toxic algae, Algae bloom, Warming, Climate change
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