Lake Erie is glowing.
Satellite imagery taken Sept. 26 of the fourth-largest of the Great Lakes shows 700 square miles of water fluorescing with swirls and clouds of bright green, almost as if someone had emptied a giant glow stick in preparation for Halloween.
But this is one phenomenon that’s not worth celebrating.
The incandescence is due to yet another outbreak of blue-green algae, a notorious scourge in many freshwater ecosystems that has been increasing in frequency since the early 2000s.
Blue-green algae, also known as Microcystis cyanobacteria, is a type of freshwater phytoplankton naturally found in lakes. Like its terrestrial counterparts, Microcystis is green from chlorophyll, and it requires sunlight and nutrients to grow — nutrients such as phosphorous, a key ingredient in fertilizer. Scientists have found that phosphorous is leaching into Lake Erie in increasing amounts from surrounding agricultural activity and residential applications of fertilizer, such as lawn care.
Coupled with the growing incidence and intensity of storms due to global warming, which increase runoff to the lake, the situation has experts concerned for the lake’s future, especially as a source of drinking water for almost 3 million people in the Great Lakes region.
David Spangler, vice president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, described the algae to The New York Times as a “musty-smelling, lime-green skin on the lake’s surface that’s so thick you could write your name in it.”
“An awful lot of money may go someplace else other than Ohio if we continue having these issues in the lake,” Mr. Spangler told the Times. In 2015, he pointed out, a similar algae bloom prevented charter trips for six to seven weeks.
Invasive species such as quagga and zebra mussels have also aided in the proliferation of blooms by filtering micronutrients and plankton to allow for more sunlight, as well as concentrating phosphorus in their feces, which can be stirred up during intense storms.
The excess phosphorus in turn feeds more Microcystis, which then consume oxygen in the water, creating “dead zones” that suffocate fish and other organisms. The phytoplankton can also produce microcystin, a toxin deadlier than cyanide that can sicken pets, fish and people.
An outbreak of microcystis-producing blue-green algae contaminated the city of Toldeo’s drinking water supply in 2014, causing nearly half a million people to rely on bottled water for three days.
Since then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has increased algae monitoring of Lake Erie through both satellite imagery and, as of this summer, an underwater robotic laboratory. The $375,000 apparatus collects water for testing and transmits results remotely in less than four hours.
Many of the studies regarding Lake Erie’s algae blooms and invasive species are funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a $300 million federal program that was eliminated in the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal. A bill to restore the funding was eventually passed after lobbying from Ohio representatives.
"It is still beyond me why the president, whose political fortune is so tied to the Great Lakes states, would gut funding for such a valuable environmental and economic resource as the Great Lakes," said U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) in a July release.