12 September 2011
This September 3, 2011 MODIS image of Lake Erie reveals a bright green algae plume concentrated in the western basin. The western basin of the lake is the shallowest part and receives discharge from the Maumee River, the largest river watershed in the Great Lakes with 6,354 square miles (16,460 square km) of land drainage.
Land use in the watershed is about 85 percent agricultural and growers typically use a corn-soybean-wheat rotation.
Microcystis is the most prevalent form of toxic algae, often referred to as harmful algal blooms. It has the same toxin, microcystin, that killed 75 people inside a Brazilian hospital in the mid 1990s, prompting a team of experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate. Although microcystis-related problems are rare in the Great Lakes region, accidental ingestion of it – even through inhalation or skin contact – can, at a minimum, leave you feeling light-headed, dizzy, and sick. I know. I experienced that while collecting samples for my employer, The (Toledo) Blade, a year ago this month. Dogs that lap up microcystis-infested water along a shoreline can die from it. Humans can too if they get enough in their system, although they are more likely to experience nausea, vomiting, and severe stomach cramps.
Bottom line: It’s poisonous. It’s not to be messed with.
The algae problem comes down to too much phosphorus from agriculture and urban combined sewer overflows. Until society demands stronger regulations for farm runoff and upgrades urban stormwater infrastructure, the algae trouble will likely continue to get worse.