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Earth Science

Scientists Solve Riddle of Toxic Algae Blooms 237

Posted by timothy
from the bet-that-lake's-no-longer-pristine dept.
An anonymous reader writes with an excerpt from the Victoria Times Colonist: "After a remarkable 37-year experiment, University of Alberta scientist David Schindler and his colleagues have finally nailed down the chemical triggers for a problem that plagues thousands of freshwater and coastal ecosystems around the world." Punchline: "Phosphorus."
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Scientists Solve Riddle of Toxic Algae Blooms

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  • Irony! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Redfeather (1033680) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:17AM (#24290495) Homepage

    This week's lesson: this discovery comes not long after phosphorus was eliminated from most household laundry detergents by federal law.

    According to a chemistry major I know, adding one gram or so of phosphorus can cause more devastating algae ownage than adding two or three kilograms of carbon.

    • Re:Irony! (Score:5, Funny)

      by 4D6963 (933028) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:19AM (#24290529)

      According to a chemistry major I know, adding one gram or so of phosphorus can cause more devastating algae ownage

      Algae ownage? I'd love to read that guy's thesis!

    • Re:Irony! (Score:5, Informative)

      by Remus Shepherd (32833) <remus@panix.com> on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:37AM (#24290809) Homepage

      This week's lesson: this discovery comes not long after phosphorus was eliminated from most household laundry detergents by federal law.

      Federal law in America and in most of Europe, apparently. I wonder how much of the developing world still uses phosphorus-based detergents?

    • Re:Irony! (Score:5, Informative)

      by QuantumRiff (120817) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:52AM (#24291065)

      Unfortunately, it is one of the major ingredients in fertilizer. In rural farming comunities, the problems with algea can get very severe from farmers over-fertilizing their fields. The algea bloom might be many, many miles down a river, from the combination of many different farms.

      • What?!? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by PRMan (959735) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @01:00PM (#24292261)

        It took 37 years to figure out that fertilizer helps plants grow?

        The plants, they won't grow...

        I'm no scientist...but have you tried, water?

        • Re:What?!? (Score:5, Funny)

          by oodaloop (1229816) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @01:07PM (#24292377)
          What, like out of the toilet?
        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by rivetgeek (977479)
          Phosphorus: It's got want plants need.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by belthize (990217)

                That was my initial response but from the article it seems the real discovery wasn't phosphorous induces plant growth.

              The real discovery was that nitrogen removal methods in already damaged waters actually exacerbates the problem. Somewhat profound since it appears the common method to fight blooms is to try and reduce nitrogen.

          Belthize

      • by timbck2 (233967)

        Not to mention algae blooms (and resulting fish kills) caused by waste spills from hog farms [findarticles.com] [findarticle.com].

      • Re:Irony! (Score:4, Interesting)

        by AlvinTheNerd (1174143) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @02:17PM (#24293443)
        In a lot of fertilizers for gardern and lawn use it, but not farms. Farms are not allowed, at least in Iowa, to use industrial phosphorus. They use ammonia, manure, and limestone (antacid). There is no way farmers could get away will the amount or type of fertilizer that is allowed on lawns and gardens in suburbia. But its never suburbia's problem, they have too much voting power.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by HeroreV (869368)

          In a lot of fertilizers for gardern and lawn use it

          This combination of words really makes my head freak out every time I try to read it.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Nasajin (967925)

            In a lot of words and head combination for freak out it, every time but not you.

            Does that help at all? ;)

    • Re:Irony! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Atari400 (1174925) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @12:41PM (#24291943)
      It's not irony, it's phosphorousy!
    • Re:Irony! (Score:4, Funny)

      by TubeSteak (669689) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @01:15PM (#24292523) Journal

      This week's lesson: this discovery comes not long after phosphorus was eliminated from most household laundry detergents by federal law.

      FTFA, this discovery "comes not long after" experiments done in the 1960's and 1970's.

      • Re:Irony! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Chyeld (713439) <chyeldNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @03:47PM (#24294997)

        Also the true discovery, according to the article, is that nitrogen actually works against the process (in that controlling the amount of nitrogen that went into the lake actually caused more damage). This goes against the current trend of thinking that the two (phosphorus and nitrogen) were working in conjunction.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by elrous0 (869638) *
      Does this mean I can still proceed with my "Lake Detergent Water Slide: Your kids have fun and get clean at the same time!" amusement park?
    • Re:Irony! (Score:2, Informative)

      by brentonboy (1067468)
      Actually, it's not really ironic.
      The discovery that phosphorus caused the algae (in 1974)helped to get it removed from detergents.
      The punchline really should be: It's not nitrogen. (Still. Also; it's still phosphorus.)
      That is what was proved after 37 years. We've known it was phosphorus since 1974!
      • by Eccles (932)

        So why do we still have huge algae blooms? Are farmers still using it widely, does it come from animal poop, or are industrial or residential sources more prominent? Presumably this and similar discoveries mean that the dead zone of Louisiana comes from phosphorus brought down the Mississippi.

    • adding one gram or so of phosphorus can cause more devastating algae

      But algae can be harvested and turned into something useful — such as natural food for cows, or fuel. All it does, is turning Sun's energy into plant (itself) and — with the help of only a little bit of phosphorus — rather efficiently...

  • by RobertB-DC (622190) * on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:19AM (#24290523) Homepage Journal

    From TFA:
    There are now 146 coastal regions in the world in which fish and bottom-feeding life forms have been entirely eliminated because of a lack of oxygen. One dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is about the size of the city of New Jersey and growing.

    I can understand dumbing-down the units of measure to Volkswagens or Libraries of Congress, but the last time I looked at Wikipedia, New Jersey was still the 3rd state admitted to the Union [wikipedia.org]. I mean, come on... it's already the brunt of every New York comedian's jokes, and now you Brits are trying to demote it to a mere "city"?

    (Of course, I'm from Texas, where an "area the size of the STATE of New Jersey" would barely be counted as a moderate-sized ranch.)

    • Re:City of... what? (Score:4, Informative)

      by xpuppykickerx (1290760) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:22AM (#24290575)
      New Jersey, Northumberland, New Brunswick, Canada This is an article from Canada after all.
      • Satire (Score:5, Funny)

        by BitterOldGUy (1330491) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:32AM (#24290721)

        New Jersey, Northumberland, New Brunswick, Canada This is an article from Canada after all.

        I'm taking it as a very clever form of satire: confusing New Jersey as a state versus a city; confusing Canada with England.

        I mean, it's pretty obvious that it's a Canadian article because it's in English and Canada is the only state in the Union that speaks English.

        • I'm taking it as a very clever form of satire: confusing New Jersey as a state versus a city; confusing Canada with England.

          Um yes, yes, YES.

          Clever satire. Exactly what I meant.

          (at least that's what I told myself after I pushed the "submit" button...)

        • Am I the only one who doesn't get this? Are you trying to imply the article isn't Canadian in origin? What does the 'confusing Canada with England' line mean?
        • by gardyloo (512791)

          I'm taking it as a very clever form of satire: confusing New Jersey as a state versus a city; confusing Canada with England.

          I mean, it's pretty obvious that it's a Canadian article because it's in English and Canada is the only state in the Union that speaks English.

          I'm taking that as very clever satire. It's pretty obvious you confused a country with something that can speak!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:51AM (#24291049)

      From TFA:
      There are now 146 coastal regions in the world in which fish and bottom-feeding life forms have been entirely eliminated because of a lack of oxygen. One dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is about the size of the city of New Jersey and growing.

      I can understand dumbing-down the units of measure to Volkswagens or Libraries of Congress, but the last time I looked at Wikipedia, New Jersey was still the 3rd state admitted to the Union [wikipedia.org]. I mean, come on... it's already the brunt of every New York comedian's jokes, and now you Brits are trying to demote it to a mere "city"?

      (Of course, I'm from Texas, where an "area the size of the STATE of New Jersey" would barely be counted as a moderate-sized ranch.)

      In defense of New Jersey vs Texas, while you have the size advantage on us, we have waaaaaay more toxic Super-Fund sites here, thus ensuring our mutated progeny a leg-up (or tentacle/webbed appendage)on you soon-to-be extinct bipeds from the Lone Star State.

    • by ak_hepcat (468765) <leif AT denali DOT net> on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @12:02PM (#24291273) Homepage Journal

      'Course, I'm from Alaska, where an area the size of Texas would be a moderate-sized park.

      Oh, SNAP!

      Although we like Canada over here next door. They're like the sassy ol' widow that bakes fresh pie and leaves it on the windowsill for us.

      • by philspear (1142299) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @01:25PM (#24292703)

        I'm from california. Where are Texas, Alaska, and Canada? Are they in the valley?

        • by Belial6 (794905) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @02:28PM (#24293623)
          I'm from California too, and I have to say that you've fallen for a prank. Those are made up places for TV shows. Texas was obviously made up for King of the Hill, and Canada was made up for South Park, but I'm not sure what Alaska was made up for... Was it Malcolm in the Middle, or maybe Babylon 5....
          • I'm from California too, and I have to say that you've fallen for a prank. Those are made up places for TV shows.

            You may well be right, but as an Angelino, born and bred, I'm sure that Florida is a hoax made up by people to attack our orange industry. I've never understood why anybody would want to drink orange juice from some imaginary place like Florida when the best eating oranges in the world come from Southern California.

          • by Cadallin (863437)
            Northern Exposure. Duh!
            • Thank You! I knew it was made up for SOME show. I'm sure you can understand my confusion though. After all, Norther Exposure... Babylon 5... It's like I Dream of Jennie and Bewitched!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I'm from Alaska - If we made Alaska into two states, Texas would be the third largest state in the union.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ratnerstar (609443)
      Good morning Canada, how are you?
      Don't you know me, I'm your neighbor below
      I'm the state you called the city of New Jersey
      and I've got 500 miles of phosphorus glow
    • by saforrest (184929)

      I mean, come on... it's already the brunt of every New York comedian's jokes, and now you Brits are trying to demote it to a mere "city"

      Um, the article is from the Victoria Times-Colonist, in British Columbia, Canada. The fact that the domain name is "canada.com" might have been a tip-off. While Victoria is more British than most Canadian cities, it's still run by us colonials.

      I'm assuming it was the extra vowels in "phosphorous" which made you think it was British. We Canadians are remarkably inconsiste

    • Of course, I'm from Alaska, where we joke that someday we'll cut Alaska in half and make Texas the third largest state in the union.

      --AC

  • Who knew (Score:5, Funny)

    by Narpak (961733) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:20AM (#24290539)

    Not only does the government have to pull out all stops to control phosphorous, he says, it needs to protect wetlands that remove these nutrients from runoff before they reach lakes and streams. It also needs to set up rules that create natural buffer zones that protect lakes and rivers from agricultural, municipal and cottage developments.

    Who knew that pumping phosphorous and toxic waste into the rivers and ocean would have negative consequences.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by snl2587 (1177409)
      What's interesting is that I was taught this over eight years ago, and I'm certain the information was available before that. The only thing new about this is the name on the research paper.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by maestro371 (762740)

        Not really a new name; the article indicates that this is a re-examination by the same folks who published the study in the 70s to combat the concept that nitrogen was a significant culprity. They wanted to re-emphasize that it's phosphorous that's the real issue and that nitrogen control usually just exacerbates the problem.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by mikael (484)

        Common sense would tell you that if a lake was pristine before someone started using fertilizers on farm fields, and that there were algae blooms after that time, that it was something to do with the fertilizers. Most articles in the past have talked about fertilizers and nitrates.

        What the scientist guy has done, is proved scientifically through trial and error, that it is the phosphorous alone, and not anything else that controls how large the algae blooms get. If other scientists can reproduce his experim

    • by OS24Ever (245667) *

      Almost every Marine Aquarium enthusiast with half a brain.

      It's always in big print in all the materials if you want anything prettier than nemo.

      • by Narpak (961733)
        Oh but I don't trust enthusiasts and "materials"; always felt that they were environmentally biased. Unable to see the big picture. That corporate profit is the most significant aspect of our society, if we start telling them what they can and can't dump; maybe they will go totally broke! Thus destabilizing the entire economy. And that is something that the environment just have to adapt to.
    • by parcel (145162)

      Who knew that pumping phosphorous and toxic waste into the rivers and ocean would have negative consequences.

      It's not "negative consequences", it's Localised Phosphorus Content Change.

  • Common knowledge? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:25AM (#24290611) Homepage Journal

    Isn't the fact that phosphorus stimulates algae growth, which suffocates other lifeforms, common knowledge? I seem to recall being taught this in school...

  • by OglinTatas (710589) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:25AM (#24290613)

    I was wondering what was so important about this study because the effects of phosphorous on aquatic life have been known for decades (hence the phosphate ban on detergents) but then I RTFA (which also mentioned the ban) and what the experiment really showed was that efforts to control nitrogen runoff are useless because it turns out nitrogen is not the problem (the implication being we are wasting money^Weffort controlling it).

    Bottom line: nitrogen is not the problem, phosphorous is _still_ the problem and needs more effective pollution control measures.

  • by iminplaya (723125) <iminplaya.gmail@com> on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @11:26AM (#24290629) Journal

    Harvest the stuff. Make fuel out of it. It's way better than using corn. You're throwing away free gas...ok diesel.

    • by skiingyac (262641)

      Why is this a plague??

      because it kills stuff, lots of stuff to be specific

    • Assuming the algae in question are suitable for such usage.

    • Harvesting is one of the principle limitations to the commercial adoption of algal biodiesel.

  • Why anyone thought nitrogen was the problem I don't know. Nitrosomonas are a natural part of the aquatic process transforming fish waist into nitrogen.

  • I thought it was widely known that the phosphorous in fertilizer was a root cause for eutrophication [wikipedia.org]?

    Is there something I'm missing here?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by faloi (738831)
      Is there something I'm missing here?

      A shot at enough money to fund an experiment for 37 years, apparently.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by SatanicPuppy (611928) *

        Yea, jesus, that's a whole career with only one deliverable.

        • Re:Huh? (Score:5, Informative)

          by FlyingOrca (747207) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @12:34PM (#24291785) Journal

          Ahem. I happen to know Dave Schindler--he and my father were colleagues--and his contribution to our knowledge of aquatic ecosystems has been quite important. Among other seminal research out of ELA were definitive papers on phosphorus and nitrogen loading (per TFA) and a little thing called acid rain. Not long ago Schindler was given a $1M award for lifetime contributions to science, and I'm not aware of anyone who would say it wasn't richly deserved.

    • According to TFA, getting rid of phosphorus is the only way to eliminate algae blooms. Getting rid of carbon and nitrogen is useless. The guy happens to have 37 years of data backing him up.

      The less money spent on getting nitrogen out of the water, the more money spent on getting phosphorus out of the water. Assuming that's even economical... it's probably far easier eliminating it from the source(s).

    • You are correct; it has been known for years. The poster clearly didn't read the article. The actual news is that limiting nitrogen is bad, and causes more algae blooms and eutrophication. Apparently people thought that along with phosphorus, nitrogen should also be controlled, this experiment confirmed that it does not.

      Carpenter predicts that a single-minded focus on nitrogen control would have disastrous consequences for aquatic resources around the world.

    • Re:Huh? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by AK Marc (707885) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @02:16PM (#24293429)
      Is there something I'm missing here?

      Read your own link, then your post. You mention phosphorus and only phosphorus. Your link mentions phosphorus and nitrogen. That's what the issue is. The common thought was that it was all fertalizer (expecially phosphorus) that caused the blooms. He showed it was phosphorus and only phosphorus and that attempts to remove nitrogen as well only exacerbated the problem. It isn't anything "new" in that phosphorus causes blooms. It is "new" in that people thought other chemicals contributed as well, and they have been found to be inconsequential.
  • "Life's Bottleneck" (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Svartormr (692822) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @12:00PM (#24291221)
    ...is an essay by Isaac Asimov, first published in the April 1959 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, then latter in his collections Fact and Fancy (1962) and Asimov on Chemistry (1974).

    In it the Gentle Doctor argued that phosphorous has the greatest relative concentration increase going from its abundance in the natural environment to that in life of all sorts. It thus was often the limit to growth of life as it was scavenged up and held in the biomass.

    It's always important to confirm by testing in specific cases, as with this one, as there are other limits, such as dissolved iron. I can't remember where, but I recently read that low blood iron may be a defensive mechanism to make it hard for bacteria to grow during some infections--and that treating the low iron may be the wrong treatment here.
  • by syrinx (106469) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @12:25PM (#24291655) Homepage

    The worst part of the algae blooms are the damn mindworms.

    Also, I'm not sure what phosphorus has to do with it; I thought algae blooms were caused by drilling too many thermal boreholes.

  • This one with a list of chemicals that cause algae blooms.
  • Here in NZ, agriculture caused the same thing. (these blooms were in very low population, farming areas)

    At first I thought that it was obvious in that everybody here knows that fertilisers dumped in the water were the obvious cause of algae blooms and other related water poisonings, but I guess those that do not come from a non-farming community would not.

    There are many more poisons being dumped in the water than just this. Mercury for example. Fortunately in our country we are pretty strict about this. (al

  • by mccabem (44513) on Tuesday July 22, 2008 @04:33PM (#24295671)

    Check out some of the results of a Google for "reef+phosphates" [google.com] and see the problems even a tiny increase in the ppm of phophate can cause in a salt-water reef aquarium. Even just one additional ppm above "normal" can be pretty extreme.

    Multiply those effects by the size of our collective phosphate-largesse and the size of the oceans and I guess you get full-on dead zones instead of just a tank of nasty algae and bacteria.

    Hope this helps.

    -Matt

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