Blue-green algae has become a summertime staple in lakes in North America and Europe, and scientists say pollution is likely to blame.
For a new study, researchers looked at historical changes in the levels of cyanobacteria, the scientific term for the photosynthetic bacteria that form the blue-green scum on the surface of ponds and lakes during hot summer months.
Rapid urban growth
“We found that cyanobacterial populations have expanded really strongly in many lakes since the advent of industrial fertilizers and rapid urban growth,” says Zofia Taranu, who led the study as a PhD candidate in the biology department at McGill University. The results appear in the journal Ecology Letters.
“While we already knew that cyanobacteria prefer warm and nutrient-rich conditions, our study is also the first to show that the effect of nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, overwhelm those of global warming.”
While the increase in cyanobacteria in agriculturally developed watersheds was in line with their expectations, scientists were surprised to find that cyanobacteria also increased in many remote, alpine lakes.
In those sites, warmer temperatures and nutrient loading from atmospheric sources are likely to have played a bigger role than direct agricultural runoff.
The dense algal blooms are a growing concern of lakefront homeowners in certain regions, but until now there had been little in the way of long-term, large-scale synthesis of data on the phenomenon.
This left room for doubt as to whether harmful algal blooms were truly on the rise, or whether communities were simply better equipped to identify and report blooms when they occur.
The rapid increase in cyanobacteria identified in the study points to the potential for a parallel increase in the concentration of harmful cyanotoxins, says Taranu, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Université de Montréal.
While potentially toxic species don’t synthesize toxins at all times, studies have shown that one of the best predictors of toxin concentrations in lakes is the total abundance of cyanobacteria.
The most common symptoms of acute exposure to harmful algal blooms are skin rash or irritation, gastroenteritis, and respiratory distress. Chronic, low dose exposures over a lifetime may also result in liver tumors or endocrine disruption.
Preliminary studies also suggest that a recently isolated cyanotoxin may become more concentrated across food chains and may be associated with the formation of progressive neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS diseases.
Although this latter work is still controversial among scientists, “our results underline the importance of further research in this area,” Taranu says.
“Our work shows that we need to work harder as a society to reduce nutrient discharges to surface waters,” says Irene Gregory-Eaves, associate professor of biology at McGill and coauthor of the study. “Because diffuse nutrient loading (as opposed to end-of-pipe effluent) is the main issue, we need to build collaborations to tackle this complex problem.
“For example, partnerships among freshwater scientists and farmers are starting to happen, and more of this needs to take place, so that we can strike a balance between maximizing crop yields and minimizing excess fertilizer application.”
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation funded the study.
Source: McGill University