Don’t Drink the Water (Part 1)

July 21, 2008 at 10:02 am 1 comment

You have likely read about the recent efforts in China to clean up the beaches along the coastal city of Qingdao following an outbreak of “Red Tide”. Approximately 20,000 volunteers and over 1,000 boats have been working around the clock to restore the beaches and bays back to their normal state prior to the start of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

“Red Tide” is the more common name for an explosive and harmful algae bloom that can form in dense patches near the water’s surface. The algae is comprised of certain species of phytoplankton which contain photosynthetic pigments and can vary in color from green to red. When present in high concentrations the algae can cause the water to be discolored or murky.

While the Chinese are concerned about how “Red Tide” will effect the Olympic sailing competition, there is a much deeper concern about how “Red Tide” effects not only the environment, but how it will impact economic markets as well. While the explosive algae growth detrimentally affects water quality, the real damage is caused when the algae reaches the end of it’s life-cycle and sinks to the sea floor where it decomposes. The decomposition results in a drop in oxygen, essentially suffocating sea life. Though many species of fish and other fast moving animals can escape the effects of “Red Tide”, marine animals that dwell at the depths suffocate and die.

In 2007, a blight of “Red Tide” struck the Gulf of Mexico, the third largest since monitoring began back in the 80s. The so called “Dead Zone” stretched from the easternmost point of the Mississippi River Delta to the coast of Texas near Corpus Christi. The impact on the fishing industries was damaging to say the least. In a region still recovering from the destruction caused by Katrina, the economic effects of “Red Tide” were likened to another hurricane striking the area.

Researchers from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and the Coastal Studies Institute assessed the damage of the 2007 disaster and have worked to determine the root cause of the explosive algae growth. The answer was not terribly surprising: agricultural runoff. Farms seeking to make the most of their growing season apply fertilizers to increase production. Uncontrolled runoff from fields along the Mighty Missisip’, or tributaries flowing into the great river, flows downstream to the Gulf where it spurs algae blooms. Ironically, the recent push for alternative fuels has encouraged farmers to plant more corn, a crop that often requires heavy fertilization.

In a more philosophical sense, this is a perfect example of how we are all connected and how our actions work to change the lives of others. While the mid-western farmer could likely care less about the Louisiana fisherman, the choices he makes may ultimately impact the livelihood of an industry a thousand miles away.

By briansrapier


Entry filed under: Agriculture, Environment, Research. Tags: , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. scienceguy288  |  July 21, 2008 at 10:15 am

    Very dangerous stuff, red tide, and it is a direct result of China’s pollution. Growth is great, but not if you kill yourself trying to achieve it.


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