Dayton Daily News Misses Climate Change Connection In Toxic Algae Blooms

Although the Dayton Daily News accurately reported on the agricultural industry's effect on dangerous algae blooms in Lake Erie, it failed in its original reporting to identify climate change as a crucial factor in creating ideal conditions for the algae growth.

A recently released report by researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science found toxic cyanobacteria -- which also plagues  Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio -- in Lake Erie, creating a smelly coating on the water's surface and causing the death of “untold numbers of marine creatures by hypoxia” in 2011. As explained in a piece in Atlantic Cities, two main factors were to blame: the agriculture industry's spreading of phosphorus-based fertilizers, which ran into the lake, and climate change, which fed the algae with warmer temperatures and weak water circulation:

Who's to blame here? The likeliest culprit is the agricultural industry with a helping hand from global warming, according to researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science. The scientists conducted a detailed postmortem on the 2011 muck-up using satellite imagery and computer models. As in past years, the process began with farmers spreading phosphorus-based fertilizer in the fall to prepare for spring planting. Because of ideal growing conditions, they were especially fertilizer-happy in the autumn of 2010.

Much of this fertilizer was then washed into the lake by rain, where it acted as a “nutrient load” (aka dinner) for a legion of tiny microorganisms. The river washing was especially intense in May 2011, because a number of massive storms swept great amounts of sediment into Erie. The algae was not only well-fed but encouraged to grow by warmer temperatures and a weak water circulation that kept the stuff near the sunny surface. The result was a bumper year for algae farmers, which might actually become a thing in the future if the algae-based biofuel industry ever gets off the ground.

While the Dayton Daily News reported on the agriculture industry's effect on the short-term algae blooms, it missed the connection to climate change, which could have longer term effects on algae blooms, according to the report's findings. On March 30, the paper published a piece discussing the algae bloom's effect on fishing in the lake. On January 19, it published a piece on Lake Erie's algae bloom diverting attention away from the algae problem at Grand Lake St. Marys, highlighting agriculture's role in the algae bloom:

Governor John Kasich said recently, “We are making progress,” but did not elaborate about the problems at Grand Lake St. Marys. He, too, realizes the problems at Lake Erie have taken center stage.

The only real “progress” will come when the last farmer stops pouring manure on his land without safeguards against runoff into the lake. Achieving that goal might mean such steps as mandatory filter strips in the watershed, hauling away manure, created wetlands in every feeder stream and any other innovation that comes along.

The paper did publish an Associated Press article discussing the Carnegie study which did highlight climate change as a factor, but has not published an original piece on the climate change connection.

Carnegie researchers found climate change to be a long-term factor in future blooms as well. Climate change increases the potential for severe storms and greater precipitation, creating ripe conditions for “longer lasting blooms and decreased mixing in the water column.”

According to the AP story, the blue-green algae found in the lake is poisonous, causes skin irritation, and the “concentrations of a liver toxin they produce were hundreds of times higher than levels approved by the World Health Organization for drinking and recreational waters.”

While the Dayton Daily News did highlight a major factor in the algae bloom issue, it failed to note its connection to climate change, which has contributed to the current formations and will continue to create algae blooms over longer periods of time with potentially serious environmental impacts for Lake Erie.