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John Cassani sounds exhausted. “Mostly what we’re doing right now is issuing cautions and doing triage,” he said.
He’s referring to a crisis centered on the largest freshwater lake in Florida, Lake Okeechobee. There, a state of emergency has been declared over a putrid, bright green bloom of bacteria that’s massacring populations of fish and other wildlife in the region.
Microcystin, a species of cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae), began appearing in large quantities in the beginning of June. Formerly pristine beaches are now inaccessible due to the toxins they produce, and the result is a major public health crisis. Exposure to algal blooms can cause severe illness in the short-term; the long-term effects are still unknown, but some scientists are finding evidence that it could increase risk of a mysterious disease similar to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
By July, the algae covered about 80-90% of the lake (which spans a total of about 470,000 acres) and had infiltrated more than 60 miles of the river that connects it to the ocean by the end of the month. To complicate matters, on the Gulf coast, Florida has been experiencing a red tide event since last October.
“We don’t think a bloom of that size is natural by any means,” said Cassani, a waterkeeper for the nonprofit Calusa Waterkeeper, Inc. Lake Okeechobee is one of the bodies of water that falls under his jurisdiction. “My personal observation is that it is unprecedented, and most of my colleagues are thinking the same thing.”
Documentary producer Katie Carpenter has been following the situation closely, and she has travelled to Florida to speak with scientists and environmental officials about what’s happening.
“I could not believe the green goo that people were living with,” she said. “This is so much more than an environmental crisis.”
Carpenter noted that businesses are closing, 500 sea turtles were lost, and a dead whale shark more than 20 feet long washed up on Sanibel Island. Plus, the smell of the algae is awful.
“If you can imagine the smell of rotting corpses, that’s what it would smell like,” Cassani said.
Cyanobacteria normally inhabits many water communities at a concentration of about one to two cells per liter. But supermassive blooms can happen when nutrient pollution from excess nitrogen and phosphorous combines with summer’s warmer air, warmer waters, and less wind. Extreme rainfall can also exacerbate matters, causing more runoff and thus more pollution.
“[Toxic algae] are one of the aspects of climate change that is coming on faster than we expected—faster than our scientists can figure it out, and that’s concerning,” Carpenter said.
So what’s to be done?
Richard Pierce, who leads Mote Marine Lab’s Ecotoxicology division, is working on some solutions. He and his team designed and patented an ozone contacting system that works to restore red tide-impacted areas by destroying all organic compounds, including algae, while simultaneously oxygenating the water. They tested it in a 25,000-gallon pool, and “it worked really well,” Pierce said.
He also says that we need to start thinking of this phenomenon in the same way that we think of hurricanes. “There’s a lot of effort that goes into monitoring hurricanes,” he said. “They’re monitoring the fluid dynamics of the atmosphere, and how’s it reacting. We have to monitor the fluid dynamics of the ocean. We have to understand the biology and ecology of the organisms that we’re dealing with, and we have to understand the chemistry of the environment and the toxins that they’re producing.”
Extreme algae blooms aren’t limited to Florida—Ohio, Utah, Wisconsin are all seeing substantial blooms, and China is also struggling with them as well.
It could get worse. “This particular bloom is very severe,” Pierce said. “But one of the worst was back in 1947, right after the war. People along the coast of Florida were choking and coughing—they were convinced that the military had dumped cannisters of NIRT gas offshore. So they brought specialists from the University of Miami and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute—they found out that it was this little microscopic organism that was producing something that was actually airborne.”
This year’s bloom “might be a record-breaker, but we don’t know yet,” Pierce said.
Carpenter says the topic deserves much more attention, regardless.
“It’s like Love Canal,” she said, referring to a water pollution disaster in the 1970s in upstate New York. “It’s a problem you want people to solve because you don’t want it in your own backyard.”