Harmful algae taking advantage of global warming

Apr 03, 2008

You know that green scum creeping across the surface of your local public water reservoir" Or maybe it’s choking out a favorite fishing spot or livestock watering hole. It’s probably cyanobacteria – blue-green algae – and, according to a paper in the April 4 issue of the journal Science, it relishes the weather extremes that accompany global warming.

Hans Paerl, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences Professor and co-author of the Science paper, calls the algae the “cockroach of lakes.” It’s everywhere and it’s hard to exterminate – but when the sun comes up it doesn’t scurry to a corner, it’s still there, and it’s growing, as thick as 3 feet in some areas.

The algae has been linked to digestive, neurological and skin diseases and fatal liver disease in humans. It costs municipal water systems many millions of dollars to treat in the United States alone. And though it’s more prevalent in developing countries, it grows on key bodies of water across the world, including Lake Victoria in Africa, the Baltic Sea, Lake Erie and bays of the Great Lakes, Florida’s Lake Okeechobee and in the main reservoir for Raleigh, N.C.

“This is a worldwide problem,” said Paerl, Kenan Professor of marine and environmental sciences in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“It’s long been known that nutrient runoff contributes to cyanobacterial growth. Now scientists can factor in temperature and global warming,” said Paerl, who, with professor Jef Huisman from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, explains the new realization in Science paper.

“As temperatures rise waters are more amenable to blooms,” Paerl said.

The algae also thrive in wet, soggy ground in areas experiencing periodic floods, like the U.S. Midwest. And in a drought, like the Southeastern United States is experiencing now, other algae and aquatic organisms die off, cyanobacteria thrive, waiting to explode

Warmer weather has also created longer growing seasons, and it’s enabled cyanobacteria to grow in northern waters previously too cold for their survival. Species first found in southern Europe in the 1930s now form blooms in northern Germany, and a Florida species now grows in the Southeastern U.S. Others have appeared recently places as far north as Montana and throughout Canada.

Fish and other aquatic animals and plants stand little chance against cyanobacteria. The algae crowds the surface water, shading out plants – fish food – below. The fish generally avoid cyanobacteria, so they’re left without food. And when the algae die they sink to the bottom where their decomposition can lead to extensive depletion of oxygen.

These cyanobacteria – blue-green algae – were the first plants on earth to produce oxygen.

“It’s ironic,” Paerl said. “Without cyanobacteria, we wouldn’t be here. Animal life needed the oxygen the algae produced.” Now, however, it threatens the health and livelihood of people who depend on infested waters for drinking water or income from fishing and recreational use.

These algae that were first on the scene, Paerl predicts, will be the last to go ... right after the cockroaches.

Source: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Explore further: Free the seed: OSSI nurtures growing plants without patent barriers

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Icy research drills down on summer algae blooms

Apr 10, 2014

We've walked a mile out on the frozen skin of Missisquoi Bay. Clouds, snow and ice blend into an abstract collage of white shapes. To the west, a thin grey line, the New York shore, cuts the world in two. ...

Scientists stitch up photosynthetic megacomplex

Nov 28, 2013

When sunlight strikes a photosynthesizing organism, energy flashes between proteins just beneath its surface until it is trapped as separated electric charges. Improbable as it may seem these tiny hits of ...

Scientists capture 'redox moments' in living cells

Nov 25, 2013

Scientists have charted a significant signaling network in a tiny organism that's big in the world of biofuels research. The findings about how a remarkably fast-growing organism conducts its metabolic business ...

Inner workings of cyanobacteria caught on video

Nov 25, 2013

Cyanobacteria, found in just about every ecosystem on Earth, are one of the few bacteria that can create their own energy through photosynthesis and "fix" carbon – from carbon dioxide molecules – and ...

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Apr 18, 2014

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

moebiex
not rated yet Apr 04, 2008
Blue greens float so they could be separated/concentrated in a anaerobic reactor to produce biogas- it just keeps striking me as an opportunity with the right research and business model

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.