Nitrogen: when good elements go bad
August 19, 2008 10:31 PM   Subscribe

China's Olympic beaches, choked by a plague of green algae. Sez David Suzuki: This is not an unusual occurrence, but it is a symptom of an underlying problem with potential repercussions far more serious than hampering Olympic events.

The blooms -- along with a host of other problems -- are caused by excessive amounts of nitrogen from sources such as road and industrial run-off, untreated sewage, and, most of all, fossil-fuel combustion and agricultural fertilizers.

Excess use of nitrogen is contributing to 400 oceanic dead zones around the globe, double the number found by the United Nations two years ago... Farmers in Iowa and across the Midwest use tons of nitrogen and phosphorous to make their cornfields more productive, which allows the farmers to take advantage of high corn prices resulting from growing demand from ethanol factories and developing countries. Rain always causes some fertilizer to run off farmland, but this summer's historic flooding caused even more runoff into rivers that flow into the Mississippi.

A review of ocean data records indicates that the low-oxygen events (the so-called 'dead zones') off the Pacific Northwest coast since 2002 are unprecedented and may be linked to the stronger, persistent winds expected to occur with global warming.

Oxygen-deprived water rose up from the deep ocean two years ago, cutting a deadly swath along the Pacific Northwest coast, say scientists, who watched in awe as fish fled and crabs and worms died en masse creating a rotting carpet on the sea floor.

China's algae problems may be part of the so-called "rise of slime", where rising ocean temperatures and changing chemistry are causing explosions of primitive life, like algae and jellyfish.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that, in August, “southern and western beaches in Korea may appear to be nearly half water and half jellyfish.

The New York Times notes pollution... reduces oxygen levels and visibility in coastal waters. While other fish die in or avoid waters with low oxygen levels, many jellyfish can thrive in them. And while most fish have to see to catch their food, jellyfish, which filter food passively from the water, can dine in total darkness.

Jellyfish, relatives of the sea anemone and coral that for the most part are relatively harmless, in fact are the cockroaches of the open waters, the ultimate maritime survivors who thrive in damaged environments, and that is what they are doing.
posted by KokuRyu (10 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
And many algae produce neurotoxins:

They discovered that 95 percent of all genera of cyanobacteria [blue-green algae] produce a molecule identified as BMAA, a suspected neurotoxin that has been recently detected in the brains of some Alzheimer's sufferers.

I wonder how all the people who cleaned that stuff up are feeling right about now:

Qingdao, located 830 kilometers from Beijing, is mobilizing more than 1,000 fishing boats to scoop up the algae and contain the outbreak, Wang said.

“We can only haul the blue-green algae manually and we’re doing all we can with our arms full and by the boat-load,” said Wang, a sailing spokesman for the Beijing Games organizing committee. “All you can see is fishing boats along the coast.”

posted by jamjam at 12:04 AM on August 20, 2008

The blooms -- along with a host of other problems -- are caused by excessive amounts of nitrogen from sources such as road and industrial run-off, untreated sewage, and, most of all, fossil-fuel combustion and agricultural fertilizers.

Those blooms are called "progress" jamjam. All that green is the color of economic growth, increasing wealth, and higher standards of living for all those city folk who don't have to take a crap in a hole in the ground anymore and who can shower more than once a month. Can't blame the Chinese for wanting to move as fast as possible out of the 18th century economy Mao created for them.

What is inexcusable are the algae blooms in the Baltic surrounded by modern nations (such as the one in which I live, Sweden) that damned well know better, have the resources and technology to do better, and who nonetheless find plenty of excuses to do pretty much nothing.
posted by three blind mice at 2:14 AM on August 20, 2008

I'm sure industry, freed from the blundering hand of government regulation, would quickly rally and put an end to the pollution which causes these deadly incidents.*

* Or at least would fund a study which would clearly demonstrate it was other polluters who were causing the problem.
posted by maxwelton at 3:50 AM on August 20, 2008

At least in China they won't go hungry.
posted by afu at 4:23 AM on August 20, 2008

You don't need to go far from Washington D.C. to find some harmful algae.

There are many kinds, the effects are just beginning to be understood, and it's everywhere. Everyone will be hearing a lot more about harmful algae over the next decade. Easy to use tests to determine the presence of toxins associated with these blooms are just now being developed, and new toxins are being discovered all the time.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 5:18 AM on August 20, 2008

Red tide at night, polluters delight.
Red tide in the morning, global warning.
posted by stbalbach at 6:02 AM on August 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

freed from the blundering hand of government regulation

Some call it regulation, some call it the prevention of externalizing costs...
posted by DreamerFi at 8:08 AM on August 20, 2008

posted by brownpau at 9:09 AM on August 20, 2008

Yea, they posted a rough cut–pretty funny.

Anyway, this is a huge problem; I recently learned about the overwhelming jellyfish bloom in the sea of Japan.
posted by Mister_A at 9:15 AM on August 20, 2008

All those armloads, bagloads, and cartloads of algae look like a bunch of fuel to me. If it is that easy to produce by accident in biblical proportions, then farming it on purpose would have to be easy as falling off a log, right? I mean, who cares if it is much less efficient if you can create a harbor full every few days?

Also global warming = stronger, persistent winds? I hadn't heard that before. Maybe Pickens isn't so far off the mark after all.

We can use wind turbines floating on buoys on the ocean to power giant aerators to re-oxygenate these dead areas.

Don't look at me that way. I'm an idea person.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:47 AM on August 20, 2008

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