Dangerous algal blooms on the increase

Monday 21st Feb 2011 by theWeather Club

Scientists speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) unveiled new research demonstrating how climate change could increase exposure and risk of human illness originating from ocean, coastal and Great Lakes ecosystems, with some studies projecting impacts being felt within the next 30 years.

"With 2010 the wettest year on record and third warmest for sea surface temperatures, NOAA and our partners are working to uncover how a changing climate can affect our health and our prosperity," said Jane Lubchenco, under-secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. Several NOAA-funded studies are shedding light on how complex interactions and climate change alterations in sea, land and sky are making our aquatic environments more susceptible to toxic algal blooms. Using cutting-edge technologies to model future ocean and weather patterns, Stephanie Moore, along with NOAA's West Coast Center for Oceans and Human Health and her partners at the University of Washington, looked at blooms of Alexandrium catenella, more commonly known as "red tide". The algae produces a poison called saxitoxin that can accumulate in shellfish. If eaten by humans, saxitoxin can cause vomiting and muscle paralysis and in extreme cases can even be fatal. "Changes in the harmful algal bloom season appear to be imminent and we expect a significant increase in Puget Sound (Washington State. USA) and similar at-risk environments within 30 years, possibly by the next decade," said Moore. "Our projections indicate that by the end of the 21st century, blooms may begin up to two months earlier in the year and persist for one month later compared to the present-day time period of July to October."

The same model and projections presented by Moore and her colleagues can be applied to other coastal areas around the world, giving us a better view of the general trend. The good news is that it is now possible to get earlier and more accurate warnings of these potentially harmful blooms. The bad news is that there likely to be a lot more harmful blooms to predict.