There’s a poisonous California-sized seaweed bed crawling across the arctic
An overgrowth of cyanobacteria, another poisonous algae, on the water near Kotzebue. A. catenella is largely invisible. Photo courtesy of Alex Whiting
Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in communities facing the harsh reality of our changing planet.
Scientists have discovered what they believe to be the world’s largest toxic algae cyst bed–almost the size of California, off the coast of Alaska.
“It’s amazing,” said Don Anderson, principal scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and principal investigator of the project which documented the massive bed, more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) long and 350 kilometers (200 miles) long. wide in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. “It eclipses anything I’ve ever seen anywhere.”
Researchers fear that a toxic bloom, produced by cysts of the algae species Alexandrium catenella, could lead to mass mortality of marine species and jeopardize the food supply of dozens of remote Arctic communities , even causes disease and death in humans.
While oral histories in the region include stories of ‘red tide’ deaths such as those sometimes caused by A. catenella, this is the first time that the cysts that produce the blooms have been documented north of the Bering Strait in large quantities.
Scientists believe that the waters warmed by several degrees by climate change now provide the conditions necessary for its growth and reproduction in massive proliferation.
“The sleeping giant is not sleeping. It’s awake, ”Anderson said.
A. catenella is one of the “most dangerous and widespread” toxic algae species in the world, says Anderson’s article. It is the cause of the massive shellfish poisoning in the Gulf of Maine and the red tides that have closed the Pacific coast, causing approximately $ 82 million in economic losses.
Cysts of A. catenella can remain dormant on the ocean floor for decades, growing exponentially when temperature conditions are conducive to the production of massive blooms. These flowers can be poisonous even when invisible to the naked eye.
In the process, they produce a poison called saxitoxin which is absorbed by the seashells. When seashells are eaten by humans, they can produce “symptoms ranging from itching of the lips to respiratory distress to death” – this is called “paralytic shellfish poisoning”.
Corn recent evidence presented by Steve Kilber, an oceanographer with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that these toxins also accumulate in other species, eventually ending up on the dinner table.
In Kotzebue, Alaska, a remote community of 3,000 people not far from the Discovery Center, up to 70 percent of the local food supply is harvested directly from water. Fish and seabirds are central to the local diet, and seal oil is a “daily condiment”.
“You can’t really overstate the importance of Kotzebue Sound… as a means of supporting commercial fishing and the subsistence economy,” said Alex Whiting, a local monitor who manages environmental programs in the community. “It’s an important part of defining who people are. “
Whiting says he has noticed “many more dead seabirds washing up around the [Kotzebue] Sound ‘since flowering was first observed in 2019.
Although there have still been no documented incidents of poisoning in Alaska, Anderson said the proliferation could cause “massive deaths” in the food chain. He said the discovery poses “a serious and growing threat” to the food supply in Arctic communities.
Caroline Behe, Indigenous Knowledge and Science Advisor for the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) in Alaska, said if the water became toxic it would endanger not only food security in the traditional sense, but also the security of traditions and local Inuit values that have survived for centuries.
“What [food security] means it starts to be more than just nutrients and calories, ”she said.
Behe says that if toxic algal blooms become a reality in the Alaska Arctic and beyond, forecasting and communicating risk will be critical to preventing serious health effects.
“Before these big events happen, we need to work on real co-management… with indigenous peoples,” she said. “It’s really important that we take the advice of the community because they know what’s going on, we don’t. “
The arctic cyst bed, Anderson’s research shows, “is the densest and most geographically known feature of its type in the world” – 15 times as dense and six times as large as anything ever before. checked in. The bed continues into Russian waters where it still has not been mapped.
“We know it goes further, but we don’t know how far,” Anderson told VICE News.
There are reasons to be optimistic. In 2009, the inhabitants of Kotzebue were alarmed by the appearance of a massive proliferation of algae in the waters near the community.
“It looked like a paint spill, like someone had thrown a whole tanker full of chartreuse paint into the water,” Whiting said.
Since then, local monitors and researchers have set up networks to monitor the impact of harmful algae on the ecosystem. These networks are now “only… more useful,” said Whiting.
The nature of research on these questions is also changing. The CCI is set to release new guidelines for community-based research, and Anderson is meeting virtually with local leaders and monitors to discuss how to get the word out to community members. (A planned community tour was scheduled for this year, but delayed by COVID-19.)
But there is still more to learn. Whiting is increasingly affected by other pest species, such as cyanobacteria, which bloom more frequently on the shores near Kotzebue due to rising temperatures. Their potential toxic impact is less well understood.
Together with his colleagues, he will closely monitor the impacts on the food chain.
“We are a heavy consumer of these species in which they find toxins,” he said. “We take hundreds of marine mammals a year… How do we know if, at some point, these levels become dangerous? “
John Last is a freelance journalist covering Europe and the Arctic. Follow it on Twitter.