Not only does it form the basis of the aquatic food web, algae can put a lid on bovine burps. It is also made into a substitute for fossil fuels and is a heathy and tasty food supplement for humans. But in late summer and early fall, some algae can spread toxins through freshwater lakes and rivers, posing a risk to people, pets, fish, and more. Be on the lookout in Northern New York this season for outbreaks of algae.
The term has no strict definition, and is used to refer to any number of photosynthetic organisms, many of which are not even closely related. Everything from single-cell microbes to giant kelp measuring 150 feet long have been labeled as algae. Worldwide, there are more than 5,000 species of algae, and nearly all of them are beneficial.
As an example, research ongoing since 2017 at the University of California at Davis concluded that feeding a small amount of marine algae to cattle reduced their burps, aka methane emissions, by 99%. That may seem like a useless piece of trivia, but according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, cattle contribute more to global warming than all forms of transportation combined (methane is 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). Needless to say, algae may turn out to be one of our strongest allies in the fight against climate change.
For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Energy has been researching single-cell algae as a fuel, calling it “one of the fuel sources of the future.” Even though it is not yet a profitable endeavor, several private companies such as Florida-based Algenol and Sapphire Energy of California are now producing algal-based fuels. A DOE website adds that “since it (algae) takes CO2 out of the atmosphere, it is a nearly carbon-neutral fuel source.” Not bad for pond scum.
Freshwater algal blooms differ from those in marine environments, such as the infamous “red tides” that bring potent neurotoxins. When folks report an algal bloom in our neck of the woods, they are talking about cyanobacteria, often called blue-green algae even though it can appear brown or reddish (never mind that most biologists do not recognize cyanobacteria as true algae). While not as dangerous as marine algal blooms, freshwater harmful algal blooms still pose a risk. The state Department of Environmental Conservation emphasizes that because there is no good way to tell a HAB from a benign one, people should avoid swimming in areas with visible algae, and keep pets out of such waters and off the beach as well.
The problem is that blue-green algae secrete microcystin, a toxic substance which in humans can cause rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, and in a few individuals, a life-threatening reaction. Dogs are particularly vulnerable to HAB poisoning because they may pick up objects on the beach which have come in contact with harmful algae. Symptoms of canine microcystin exposure include unsteadiness, seizures, or difficulty breathing. An exposed dog should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
HABs can also threaten drinking-water supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that “Toxins from harmful algal blooms (HABs) are increasingly contaminating source waters, as well as the drinking-water treatment facilities that the source waters supply.” In August 2014, dangerous levels of microcystin forced the city of Toledo to issue a “do not drink” order to more than 400,000 residents, leaving them without water for three days. The Ohio Health Department advised residents not to even brush their teeth with water from the faucet. The problem was a small HAB near the city’s intake pipes in Lake Erie.
Harmful algal blooms seem to be occurring more often than they did historically. One reason is that water bodies tend to be warmer: summers are hotter than in the past, and the temperate season is longer than it used to be. A NYSDEC web page says HABs “are likely triggered by a combination of conditions that may include excess nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), low-water or low-flow conditions, and warm temperatures.” As you enjoy the great outdoors this summer and fall, please report any suspected blue-green algae blooms to the NYS Department of Health at firstname.lastname@example.org or to your local health department.
Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County. Contact him at 315-379-9192 ext. 232.