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

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.

Algae are melting away the Greenland ice sheet

Researchers are fanning out across the Greenland ice sheet this month to explore a crucial, but overlooked, influence on its future: red, green and brown-coloured algal blooms. These darken the snow and ice, causing it to absorb more sunlight and melt faster.

The £3-million (US$4-million) Black and Bloom project aims to measure how algae are changing how much sunlight Greenland’s ice sheet bounces back into space. “We want to get a handle on just how much of the darkness is due to microbes and how much to other physical factors”, such as soot or mineral dust, says Martyn Tranter, a biogeochemist at the University of Bristol, UK, and the project’s principal investigator.

Team scientists arrived near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, this week for 6 weeks of observations. The work will continue for two more summers, exploring different parts of the ice sheet. Ultimately, the scientists hope to develop the first deep understanding of  how biological processes affect Greenland’s reflectivity.

From these results, climate modellers should be able to improve their estimates of how the ice sheet  —  which contains enough water to raise sea levels by seven metres — is likely to melt in the coming decades. The past several years, as well as the current one, have seen temperature and melting records set across Greenland.

Algae that live on snow and ice produce a kaleidoscope of colours. Jason Edwards/NGC
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.

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


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

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 

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The 121 foot brig James McBride ran aground during a storm on October 19, 1857. (U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City)

Winter ice is melting around the Great Lakes, revealing cerulean waters below—and, in northern Lake Michigan, an open graveyard of shipwrecks.

Lake Michigan’s Manitou Passage is a popular diving destination for shipwreck-seekers, but this year the Spring weather has conspired to produce an unusually plain view of the sunken ships. The U.S. Coast Guard Air Station of Traverse City, Michigan said last week in a Facebook post that an air crew first glimpsed the exposed wrecks during a routine patrol of the northern Michigan coastline.

Though still a chilly 38.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the water will soon warm, welcoming recreational swimmers, divers, boaters and an influx of nutrient runoff from towns and farms in the watershed. That will usher in algal blooms and again obscure the wrecks currently visible through the crystal clear water.

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The 121 foot brig James McBride ran aground during a storm on October 19, 1857. (U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City)

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The Rising Sun, a 133 foot long wooden steamer, stranded just north of Pyramid Point on October 29, 1917. (U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City)

Pictorial> Crystal clear Lake Michigan waters reveal graveyard of sunken ships Winter ice is melting around the Great Lakes, revealing cerulean waters below—and, in northern Lake Michigan, …
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Algal Blooms (Draft)

By Ansa Varughese

Impact of climate change on the nutrient load of the Pike River watershed

Models provide researchers with a view to the future, allowing stakeholders the opportunity to adapt to the effects of climate change

Ottawa, ON (17 November 2015) - Using future climate change scenarios and water quality projections, experts found that sediment and the blue-green algae producing nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen are likely to increase in the Missisquoi Bay despite active efforts to reduce nutrient loads.

A team made up of researchers from the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at McGill University, the Institut de recherche et de développement en agroenvironnement and the Consortium on Regional Climatology and Adaptation to Climate Change have been studying the effects of land, water, and climate change on the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in the Missisquoi Bay for 15 years. Using climate models designed to test a large range of different conditions in temperature and precipitation, the team has found that the presence of these hazardous nutrients is likely to increase in the Bay over the next 50 years.

The study estimates that mean annual sediment will increase from 1% to 7%, phosphorus will increase from 13% to 20% and nitrogen will increase from 24% to 43% due to higher air temperatures, early snowmelt and more drainage into the Bay resulting from climate change.

“If these projected results become a reality, it will be very difficult to achieve the proposed water quality standards set by the governments of Vermont and Quebec, which share jurisdiction of the Bay,” says lead researcher Dr. Chandra Madramootoo of McGill University. “It will be equally as difficult to prevent the degradation of water and habitat quality as a result of human activity and to control the growth of cyanobacterial blooms (toxic blue-green algae)” continues Dr. Madramootoo. “This research is of particular interest to policy-makers, those involved in watershed management and all those involved with cyanobacteria outbreaks in lakes.”

Read more here.

Provided by NRC Research Press (via EurekAlert)

Image credit: AP

Sea lions exposed to algal toxin show impaired spatial memory

Brain scans and behavioral tests of California sea lions that stranded on shore show how an algal toxin disrupts brain networks, leading to deficits in spatial memory, according to a study to be published Dec. 18 in Science. The new findings by scientists at UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, suggest that chronic exposure to the toxin domoic acid, produced by naturally occurring marine algae, affects sea lions’ ability to navigate in their ocean habitat and survive in the wild.

Blooms of the toxic algae typically occur in the spring and fall along the California coast, but have been increasing in frequency and severity. Hundreds of sea lions strand on California beaches every year with symptoms of domoic acid poisoning, including disorientation and seizures.

A team led by Peter Cook, then a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and now at Emory University, studied 30 California sea lions undergoing veterinary care and rehabilitation at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. Researchers administered behavioral tests to assess spatial memory and performed brain imaging (MRI) to see the extent of brain lesions in the affected animals.

Damage to the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory, is often seen in sea lions with domoic acid poisoning, Cook said.

“In this study, we were able to correlate the extent of hippocampal damage to specific behavioral impairments relevant to the animals’ survival in the wild,” he said.

Working with Professor Charan Ranganath’s Dynamic Memory Laboratory at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, Cook adapted behavioral tests usually used to assess memory in rats to sea lions. For example, in a “T-maze,” an animal has to remember that if it got a treat by turning right, the next time it takes the test it gets a treat by turning left. Cook also consulted with the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center on how to use MRI scans to quantify damage to brain structures such as the hippocampus.

With MRI, the researchers could see structural damage in the brains of affected sea lions, especially in the hippocampus. This looped structure in the center of the brain is known to be important for memory processes in humans and rodents. Animals with damage to the hippocampus showed impaired performance on short- and long-term spatial memory tasks, the researchers found.

“We could see structural differences, so we decided to get some functional data while the animals were in the scanner,” Ranganath said. While an anesthetized animal is in the scanner, brain regions continue to share information back and forth.

With a grant from Siemens, the team was able to use equipment never previously used for marine mammals to look at how different brain regions talk to each other. They found that in addition to visible damage to the hippocampus, there were effects on interactions between the hippocampus and other brain structures, notably the thalamus.

“This is the first evidence of changes to brain networks in exposed sea lions, and suggests that these animals may be suffering a broad disruption of memory, not just spatial memory deficits,” Cook said.

Read more here.

Provided by the University of California, Davis

Image credit: Marine Mammal Center

Nutrient pollution doing more damage to streams than previously thought

Nutrient pollution’s contribution to harmful algal blooms in both aquatic and marine ecosystems is a well-documented problem. As nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer, industrial runoff, urbanization, and other sources enter streams, rivers, and the sea, algae take advantage of the influx of nutrients and reproduce at unnaturally high and harmful levels.  A new study from the University of Georgia shows that algal blooms are not the only problem caused by nutrient pollution, however: in streams, higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorus lead to decreases in forest-derived carbon that are crucial food sources for aquatic life.

There are two main food sources for organisms living in streams: algae, which produce their own food through photosynthesis and provide food for other organisms; and forest litter, such as leaves, twigs, and other debris. The forest litter is a particularly important food source because it persists year-round and helps provide nutrients to streams that do not receive enough light for significant levels of algae-derived carbon.

To study how nutrient pollution impacts streams, researchers set up a system that added nutrients to headwater streams. The first experiment involved two streams and persisted for six years; the second involved three streams and persisted for five years. The different experiments used different combinations of nitrogen and phosphorus to resemble the effects of different types of land use that result in nutrient runoff.

The researchers found that the forest-derived carbon levels were cut in half when even moderate amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus were added to the stream. The nutrient pollution stimulates and accelerates the breakdown of forest litter, moving so quickly that streams can be unnaturally bare – and therefore incapable of adequately supporting aquatic life – by mid-summer. Because algae-derived and forest-derived carbon play different roles in the ecosystem, the excess carbon produced by algal blooms cannot “balance out” the lack of forest-derived energy. 

This new information allows researchers to understand the impact of nutrient pollution more thoroughly. The researchers hope that it will help conservationists better address the health of streams and estuaries and provide more effective protection for the environment.

Based on materials originally written by Beth Gavrilles for the University of Georgia. (Via ScienceDaily.)

Journal reference: A. D. Rosemond, J. P. Benstead, P. M. Bumpers, V. Gulis, J. S. Kominoski, D. W. P. Manning, K. Suberkropp, J. B. Wallace. Experimental nutrient additions accelerate terrestrial carbon loss from stream ecosystemsScience, 2015; 347 (6226): 1142 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa1958

Image credit: Phillip M. Bumpers/UGA

Satellite view of algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee
Algae blooms are a regular phenomenon in Lake Okeechobee during the summertime. Pollution, such as runoff from farms, and lake water that warms through the summer, create an environment favorable for growth. This year the bloom grew large early in the season and it affected more people than usual, showing up far beyond the confines of the lakeshore. From;
How Do We Save the Salton Sea?
For decades California's largest lake has teetered on the edge of ecological disaster. But a new deal and action plan may finally be gaining momentum.

Just a half-century ago the Salton Sea supported a thriving economy. In the 1990s the desert oasis dream was largely abandoned; nobody wants to sunbathe beside algal blooms or amid the stench of rotting fish.