though beautiful, these fluorescent blue patches of water are an indicator of a harmful algal bloom created by noctiluca scintillans, single celled organisms which become abundant when levels nitrogen and phosphorous from farm run off increase, and which proves toxic to the marine life that consumes it. the noctiluca also serve to deprive the water of oxygen, creating dead zones that are difficult for oceans to recover from.

while the evolutionary reason for their bioluminescence is still debated, varying from defensive purposes to communication to predatory strategy, the cause of this so called sea sparkle is better known; as the noctiluca float, movement in the water sends electrical impulses around a proton filled compartment inside the microorganisms, triggering a series of chemical reactions which ultimately activates luciferase, a protein that produces the neon blue light.

most marine bioluminescence is in the blue and green light spectrum, as these wavelengths pass furthest through seawater. interestingly, no known fresh water dinoflagellates have ever evolved bioluminescent abilities.

(click pic or link for credit and location xxxxxxxx, xxx)

Phytoplankton like it hot: Warming boosts biodiversity and photosynthesis in phytoplankton

Warmer temperatures increase biodiversity and photosynthesis in phytoplankton, researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) have found. Globally, phytoplankton - microscopic water-borne plants - absorb as much carbon dioxide as tropical rainforests and so understanding the way they respond to a warming climate is crucial.

The groundbreaking study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, was carried out over five years using artificially warmed ponds that simulated the increases in temperature expected by the end of the century.

The researchers found that phytoplankton in ponds that had been warmed by four degrees, had 70% more species and higher rates of photosynthesis, and as a result, have the potential to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Phytoplankton were counted, measured and identified under a microscope, and the production or consumption of oxygen was measured to determine rates of photosynthesis and respiration.

The study found that phytoplankton communities in the warmed ponds were more species rich, had greater evenness in species abundance, greater biomass and were dominated by larger species.

In contrast to previous work conducted in small scale, short-term laboratory experiments, these findings demonstrate that future global warming could actually lead to increases in biodiversity and photosynthesis in some locations. These results cannot be extrapolated to the global scale as declines might occur in other places where different ecological mechanisms prevail.

The authors attribute their findings to the fact that the experiments were conducted in open outdoor ecosystems where local extinctions of species can be replaced by new immigrants from surrounding locations.

Dr Gabriel Yvon-Durocher from the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter said: “The increases we’ve seen in phytoplankton biodiversity appear be driven primarily by the effects of warming on zooplankton – the microscopic animals that eat phytoplankton.

“Higher grazing rates by the zooplankton, which prefer small abundant phytoplankton species, prevent the ecosystem being dominated by just a few of these highly competitive species, allowing species which are inferior competitors for resources to coexist.

“What our study clearly shows is that future global warming is likely to have a major impact on the composition, biodiversity and functioning of plankton, which play a pivotal role in aquatic ecosystems.”

Professor Mark Trimmer from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences said: “Our warming facility at QMUL has been running for 10 years now and it is quite remarkable what such a simple experiment has enabled us to uncover about how climate warming alters the cycling and balance of the key bio-elements that sustain life on Earth.”

The study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Provided by the University of Exeter

Image credit: Gabriel Yvon-Durocher

What is killing Chile’s marine life?

Waves of dead sea animals - whales, salmon, sardines, and clams - have been piling up on Chile’s Pacific beaches over the last few weeks. What’s going on?

(Miles of dead clams were found on the beaches of southern Chile. Photo by Alvaro Vidal/AFP/Getty Images)

Last year, scientists could not explain why close to 300 whales turned up dead on remote bays of the southern coast of the country.

In March of 2016, the country faced a huge algal bloom which strongly impacted the salmon farming industry. This surge in algae killed an estimated 40,000 tons of salmon in the Los Lagos region — equal to about 12% of Chile’s annual production and enough to fill 14 Olympic-sized pools. Thousands of tons of dead salmon ended up being dumped in the sea 80 miles offshore. 

This month, about 8,000 tons of sardines washed up at the mouth of the central Queule River while thousands of dead clams piled up on the coast of Chiloé Island. On Santa Maria Island, cuttlefish have washed up dead in the thousands.

The authorities are putting the blame on the red tide, and have banned fishing in the affected regions, putting thousands of fishermen out of work. 

(Details and location of Chiloé Island, in Chile. Map source)

A red tide is a harmful algal bloom which like its name indicates turns the water red, while potentially producing an elevated concentration of toxins. 

It is a common and naturally recurring phenomenon in the waters of Chile, but scientists estimate that this current outbreak is unprecedented, extending further north than usual. Many point to an unusually strong El Niño weather pattern this year as a key factor. 

El Niño is a disruptive weather phenomenon that comes with warming sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. Warmer waters can lead to greater quantities of algae, which kills others species by consuming oxygen in the water or filling it with toxins.

The red tide makes the mussels, clams, and other fish essentially poisonous, and thus is heavily influencing the local economies and livelihood of thousands. Fishermen around the island of Chiloé are now protesting and accusing the government of failing to alleviate the economic losses they have suffered. 

(Red tide seen from above. Photo source.)

“We think that a common factor in the deaths of creatures in southern Chile, in the salmon farms and in fish off the coast is the El Niño phenomenon,” the Chilean fisheries institute IFOP said in a statement to AFP.

While the government is quick to put the blame on the red tide and El Niño, scientists suspect there may be other factors in play.  Warmer waters from El Niño do foster ideal conditions for algae to grow, but a significant nutrient input can also help trigger the bloom.

Laura Farias, an oceanographer at Chile’s Concepcion University, suggested in an interview that the growth of fish farming in Chile’s southern Patagonia region could be to criticize for killing the salmon and clams.

“There are studies indicating that in Patagonia the greater occurrence of toxic blooms could be a consequence of aquaculture,” she said.

(8,000 tons of sardines were washed up at the mouth of the Queule river. Photo found on Facebook: Armada de Chile)

Incidentally, artisanal fishing unions are attributing the size of this year’s red tide on pollution by the farmed salmon industry. Chiloé residents blame the salmon industry and the government for the contamination, alleging that this oversized red tide began just after 4,000 tons of dead salmon were dumped 80 miles offshore from the island.

Other disagree, and argue the dumping of the salmon has no correlation:

The bloom of algae is linked to the change in ocean conditions fostered by El Niño. The relationship to the dumping of the salmon has no scientific basis,” explained Universidad de Concepcion agricultural researcher Renato Quiñones. 

While no scientific data is available yet, it is probably a combination of natural reasons (El Niño weather pattern, seasonal algal bloom) aggravated by unnatural causes (fish farming run-off and pollution) that is resulting in the overwhelming and heartbreaking die-off of the local marine wildlife. 

the end of phosphates - we hope

I actually read this article yesterday, but I’ve been completely swamped at work and otherwise busy with a report on dryland salinity when I get home (seriously.  It’s more interesting than you’d think).

Anyway, while I’m certainly no fan of the large supermarket chains, this struck me as really positive news - if running very, very late.  See, phosphates play a really nasty role in the eutrophication of waterways - in a very-unscientific-nutshell, this means;

1) Cyanobacterial algal blooms (that’s the bad sort of algae - the manky blue-green crap they show on science documentaries)

2) Suffocating fish.  This is usually due to the algal blooms, which block sunlight to underwater plants, stalling their usual process of photosynthesis, which is imperative to the underwater oxygen supply.  Less/ no oxygen= less/ dead fish.

3) General ecosystem toxicity.  Cyanobacterial blooms are incredibly toxic to livestock and to shellfish (and the humans who eat them)

And this is just the most basic summary I could throw together in a lunchbreak. So, why has it taken so long for major companies to start even phasing out the use of phosphates? Why hasn’t this been a government requirement, not something subject to the “good will” of major players such as Coles, Woolworths and Unilever (read: public pressure)?

Good question.  The EU first raised the issue and began initiating a ban on phosphates back in 2005.  In December 2010, it was determined that they would be outright illegal in all laundry detergents from 1 January 2013 (why this takes 8 years to fully implement is beyond me - I know that they need to warn producers and suppliers, but 8 years seems a tad excessive).  In the US, a number of states placed restrictions on phosphates and there was a voluntary industry-wide ban in 1993.  And in Australia?  There’s never been a change until now.  I don’t know the reasons, but I’m glad that finally, something is happening.

In the meantime though, check your detergents.  There are already quite a few phosphate-free alternatives out there - and they’re all pretty happy to advertise that fact.


A bloom of Noctiluca scintillans in Honk Kong, a large, green marine dinoflagellate that exhibits bioluminescence when disturbed.

The luminescence, also called Sea Sparkle, is triggered by farm pollution that can be devastating to marine life and local fisheries. Although this species does not produce a toxin, it has been found to accumulate toxic levels of ammonia which is then excreted into the surrounding waters possibly acting as the killing agent in blooms .

From here

Photographs by Kin Cheung/AP

This Meat Company Dumps More Pollution Into Waterways Each Year Than ExxonMobil

Tyson Foods, one of the largest producers of meat in the world, is responsible for dumping more toxic pollution by volume into U.S. waters than companies like Exxon and Dow Chemical, according to a new analysis from environmental advocacy group Environment America.

The analysis, released last Wednesday, coincides with a decision by Tyson shareholders not to institute a new water policy that would have mandated the company keep better track of its water pollution both inside and outside of its direct facilities.

Water pollution from Tyson Foods comes from a variety of sources, from the fertilizer used by farmers to grow feed for animals to the manure produced by raising thousands of animals in factory farms. But those figures aren’t publicly available, as Tyson is only legally required to report pollution from its processing plants to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory. According to those reports, Tyson dumped 104 million pounds of pollutants into U.S. waterways between 2010 and 2014 — the second highest volume of toxic discharges reported by any company, and higher than the discharges of companies like US Steel Corp, Koch Industries, and ExxonMobil.

“In the public’s mind, if you were to ask who are the big polluters, they would say Exxon, Dow, Dupont,” John Rumpler, senior attorney with Environment America, told ThinkProgress. “I think most people who go to the supermarket to buy chicken don’t realize that Tyson is — by volume — heads and shoulders above some of these well-known polluter names.”

Much of the pollution from Tyson’s processing facilities — which includes animal waste and waste products — are nitrate compounds, which can have a detrimental effect on both environmental and public health. In high concentrations, nitrates in drinking water can hinder a body’s ability to carry enough oxygen to cells, causing potentially severe health problems for infants and people with compromised immune systems. In the environment, nitrates can lead to algal blooms and dead zones that deprive marine ecosystems of oxygen needed to sustain aquatic life.

In 2014 alone, processing plants owned by Tyson Foods dumped 20 million pounds of pollution into U.S. waterways, according to Environment America’s analysis — an amount that has remained fairly steady over the past five years, according to Rumpler.

Tyson’s pollution has been the subject of several legal challenges over the years, with the company paying more than $25 million in legal settlements and fines since 2001. Most recently, the Attorney General of Missouri filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods accusing the company of illegally discharging untreated wastewater that led to the death of up to 100,000 fish. Tyson settled with Missouri in 2015 and agreed to pay.

But Rumpler says that Environment America’s most recent analysis “just scratches the surface” of water pollution created by Tyson and other agribusiness giants like Cargill, Pilgrims Pride, and Perdue.

“At a certain point, we have to ask ourselves if the amount of waste created by this [industrial food] system is sustainable,” Rumpler said.

Read more here.

Text credit: Natasha Geiling

Image: Shutterstock

Fingerprinting erosion

You may have noticed that after a heavy rainstorm, creeks and rivers often turn the color of chocolate milk. That cloudy brown color is caused by sediments—weathered rock material ranging in size from tiny granules of mud to stones. As it courses along, water sweeps up sediments in the well-known process of erosion. Eventually, the sediments find a home, sometimes in a place where it isn’t wanted. And, it’s not just mud and sand that gets carried to water sources. Contaminants often catch a ride to waterways by clinging to sediments.

Soil scientist David Lobb investigates the origin of these nomadic sediments. His work is in the Tobacco Creek Watershed, a collection of streams that flow into the Red River and ultimately dump into Lake Winnipeg, Canada. Lake Winnipeg is the final resting place of three major rivers, making it the second largest watershed in Canada. It feels the effects of activity taking place upstream.

“We are all being challenged to look at the watershed as a whole, not just at the water that flows out a watershed,” says Lobb.

Watershed health and water quality issues are a growing concern. A variety of human activities can negatively impact watersheds. Fertilizers used to bolster crop yields, sewage pollution from treatment facilities, and refuse from livestock can leach an excess of nutrients. The nutrients, especially phosphorus, enter large bodies of water like Lake Winnipeg. Algae feeds on this influx of phosphorus and goes into a frenzy of growth, which can lead to the choking out other species and throwing off the function of the entire ecosystem. Sediments are often blamed for carrying this nutrient runoff from topsoil sources like farm fields and livestock production areas.

In the context of these issues, Lobb and his team were keen to examine the sediments traveling downstream toward Lake Winnipeg. In order to better understand where sediments are coming from, Lobb and his colleagues from the University of Manitoba and the University of Northern British Columbia use a technique called color fingerprinting. The color of a particular sediment is key to identifying the specific origin of the erosion. “It’s not as particular as fingerprinting in a crime scene investigation,” says Lobb, “but we have the tools to get a sophisticated identification of the sources of sediments.”

Read more here.

Text credit: Rossie Izlar for the american Society of Agronomy

Image: Lake Winnipeg Basin Workshop by Canadian Water Network 

Fossil flower

The exceptional preservation of this Eocene (56-34 million years ago) flower is due to the fine grained nature of the limestone in which it was entombed. The specimen comes from the Green River Formation covering parts of the North American Midwest towards the end of the uplift of the Rocky Mountains. The formation was deposited in the intermontane basins between the chains of growing peaks, and includes a mixture of terrestrial swamp and river sediments and deep lake sequences, which were surrounded by swampy areas with a profusion of warm climate plants. The formation is world famous for its fossil freshwater fish and the formation dates from between 53.5 and 48.5 million years ago.

Some of these plants turned into coal seams, while the spring algal blooms in the lakes produced oil shales in the anoxic lake bottom oozes. Some of the lake sediments are varved, with fine laminations that record seasonal changes between organic rich dark sediments from the short mountainous growing season and thin layers of light coloured sediment deposited in winter from suspended particles in the lake water. The best preserved fossils are found in these varved oozes, which are made of very fine grained limy mud. The fossils are well dated due to layers of volcanic ash interleaved in the sediments that were erupted from the nearby Yellowstone caldera and San Juan volcanic field. The area is designated as a Lagerstatte, a German word used to denote an area of rock with exceptional or important fossils.


Image credit: NPS
Algal blooms threaten NW salmon

A cousin of the algae that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning causes trouble for salmon.

Towards the bottom of the marine food chain you’ll find Heterosigma Akashiwo. They’re among the smallest creatures in the ocean. And most of the time, they’re harmless. But every year, in the spring and fall, these microscopic phytoplankton join forces and become the terror of the sea.


When In Doubt, Stay Out! Protect your pooch from harmful algal blooms. (by USEPAgov)

Record-setting algal bloom in Lake Erie caused by agricultural and meteorological trends consistent with expected future conditions

Michalak, A.M., E.J. Anderson, D. Beletsky, S. Boland, N.S. Bosch, T.B. Bridgeman, J.D. Chaffin, K. Cho, R. Confesor, I. Daloğlu, J.V. DePinto, M.A. Evans, G.L. Fahnenstiel, L. He, J.C. Ho, L. Jenkins, T.H. Johengen, K.C. Kuo, E. LaPorte, X. Liu, M.R. McWilliams, M.R. Moore, D.J. Posselt, R.P. Richards, D. Scavia, A.L. Steiner, E. Verhamme, D.M. Wright, and M.A. Zagorski, 2013: “Record-setting algal bloom in Lake Erie caused by agricultural and meteorological trends consistent with expected future conditions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1216006110.

In 2011, Lake Erie experienced the largest harmful algal bloom in its recorded history, with a peak intensity over three times greater than any previously observed bloom. Here we show that long-term trends in agricultural practices are consistent with increasing phosphorus loading to the western basin of the lake, and that these trends, coupled with meteorological conditions in spring 2011, produced record-breaking nutrient loads. An extended period of weak lake circulation then led to abnormally long residence times that incubated the bloom, and warm and quiescent conditions after bloom onset allowed algae to remain near the top of the water column and prevented flushing of nutrients from the system. We further find that all of these factors are consistent with expected future conditions. If a scientifically guided management plan to mitigate these impacts is not implemented, we can therefore expect this bloom to be a harbinger of future blooms in Lake Erie.

Open Access