Toxic Algae Are Sliming the Arctic And Things Are Getting Weird

An Ecosphere Millions of Years In The Making Is Changing Rapidly In Ominous Ways

Toxic Algae in Arctic Marine LifeCarcass of dead whale shows evidence of neurotoxins

The toxic algae blooms that were wreaking havoc in the Pacific Northwest in the past decade have moved north into Arctic waters, causing biologists to question the present and future impact on key marine mammal species, and the viability of the food chain as a whole. The report cites evidence of two toxins – domoic acid and saxitoxin – that have been found in the bodies of whales, walruses, porpoises, sea otters and most other large marine animals. The research was based on examination of 900 carcasses and covered a total of 13 species.

The study indicates the presence of the nasty green algae way further north than it has ever been found before, a highly unwelcome phenomenon attributed directly to the rapidly warming waters of Arctic seas. The situation is exacerbated by the melting of sea ice, which leaves more areas open to light, improving conditions for algae to spread.

The algae blooms in the far north are being blamed for a series of mass die-offs that have alarmed marine biologists at NOAA and other agencies. Since May of last year, dozens of whale carcasses have been found in the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Coast of Canada, about three times the expected norm. Tens of thousands of dead common murres washed ashore near Whittier, Alaska, another highly unusual event. The birds had starved to death. Other bird species are also exhibiting peculiar behavior, such as uncharacteristic change in flight patterns.

There are other anomalies, especially movement of species from tropical and mid-latitudes into the northern ocean. Tropical fish have been moving north, with species such as the ocean sun fish discovered in Prince William Sound.

Those are the events that humans can witness relatively easily. But the truly worrisome development is the potential wiping out of the lowest levels of the food chain. When plankton die off, everything dies off.

In 2015, an unprecedented bloom along the West Coast caused the closing of fisheries and recreational waters from California up into the Aleutian Islands.  In 2014, virtually the entire population of sea stars along the coast died of an unexplained wasting disease. As far as its effects on humans, toxic algae also carries a poison linked to Alzheimer’s and Motor Neurone Disease. So that’s not good either.

Ecosystems have always evolved over the millennia and there are always winners and losers. It is the rate of change in this newly dawning Anthropocene era that has biologists sounding the alarm in ways that are uncharacteristic of the breed. According to reporting in the Washington Post, the experts are telling us that this is just the beginning.


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