What's Behind Florida's Algae Bloom? Satellite Photos Reveal Clues

By Lindsay, Rowena | The Christian Science Monitor, July 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

What's Behind Florida's Algae Bloom? Satellite Photos Reveal Clues


Lindsay, Rowena, The Christian Science Monitor


A toxic algae bloom, so large it is visible from space, has been expanding in Florida's Lake Okeechobee since May and has spread through the St. Lucie River estuary to the Atlantic Ocean. The algae invasion has made the water unfit for consumption and agriculture and prompted Governor Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency in two south Florida counties, as scientists and politicians dispute just what's to blame.

Satellite photos taken on July 2 by NASA's Operational Land Imager reveal an expanding patch of single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria (colloquially known as blue-green algae, although it is really a bacteria). The bloom covers approximately 33 square miles of the Lake Okeechobee, which at 720 square miles is the second largest lake completely within the United States, after Lake Michigan.

"Human activities have dramatically increased nitrogen and phosphorus inputs into many rivers and lakes, causing algal blooms that threaten economic and recreational uses of those waters," Hans Paerl, professor of marine and environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences, told LiveScience.

Pollution, warmer lake water caused by global warming, and changes in agricultural practices, including increased use of nitrogen-fertilizer, have all been found to contribute to blooms such as this one. But a new debate has arisen over whether this bloom was caused by sewage, as well. Organizations such as the The South Florida Water Management District are saying sewage, not runoff from the lake, may be causing the problem.

"We're not saying there are no pollutants from (agriculture); there are," Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch who conducted a study on the effects of sewage on algae blooms in 2015, told the Treasure Coast Palm. …

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