Life by its own design is cyclical. Spring follows Winter. Birth leads to Death. In a way, I find this comforting, I like to know what comes next. What I do not like, is when we are given a chance to correct a problem in our world and we do, but only for a short time…then the problem is worse. This is what happened to Lake Erie.
In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Lake Erie was plagued with algae. Thick, odoriferous and invasive algae that was the result of particulate phosphorus introduced to the Lake through farm and sewage runoff. Initially, no one cared much beyond aesthetics. But then came the fire on the Cuyahoga River, and national attention turned the river around. Strict monitoring of Ohio’s waterways began to clean up the chemicals and filth. Some may recall a Saturday Night Live skit featuring Bill Murray as a salesman peddling a fake mineral water called, “Swill.” Swill was of course, the water “dredged from Lake Erie.”
The happy ending to this story from 30+ years ago was that enough citizens were concerned and action was taken. Standards and regulations were put in place and we really haven’t had a great deal of algal growth on Lake Erie.But don’t get comfortable just yet. With the Earth’s rising climate, the warming temperature of Lake Erie has provided an inviting environment for several species of algae. The algal bloom in 2010 occurred with prime conditions for planting and harvesting. After the bloom began, warmer water and weaker currents encouraged a more productive bloom than in prior years. The longer period of weak circulation, and warmer temperatures helped incubate the bloom and allowed it to remain near the top of the water. This added the effect of preventing the nutrients from being flushed out of the system.
As the climate models show, change is coming. Thanks to this foresight, we know that the winds will slow down as the temperatures rise. With this as the precedent, there is a predicted increase in storm surges and wet weather. This trend has already proven true in the Great Lakes Region, and with the change comes a rise in invasive species such as Microcystis (a particularly nasty species of algae) and Asian Carp.
Officials hope to hold off the Carp, but the algae will continue to cause a problem. Because farming methods have changed in recent years, the chemicals that are sprayed onto the fields are no longer tilled into the ground at the end of the season. The chemicals remain on top, washing easily into the waterways. Heavy spring rains wash the fertilizers off the fields and bring algae to a nasty blue-green bloom that has the potential to stretch along the shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland.
As the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie offers the most welcoming environment for fish and plants. The shallow water also creates the perfect home for the algal growths to thrive in the summer months. For over 10 years now, the algae has spread across Lake Erie during the summers, at some times so thick that it slows the boats down as they struggle to push through it. As if this isn’t bad enough, as the algae dies, they sink to the bottom of the lake, where they ultimately decay and stealoxygen from the water. The lack of oxygen in the water then creates a “dead zone” where no fish can live.
What is the conclusion to be drawn from the return of algae in Lake Erie? Chemicals sprayed over nearby fields, coupled with climate change, creates the perfect conditions for these dramatic algal blooms.
Climate change is choking Lake Erie and choking our planet. Now is the time to start looking at our environment as a highly complex, intertwined system, and respect the cycles of life, so we can prevent the cycles of untimely death.