Rock Snot: Worldwide Algae Blooms Are Caused By Phosphorus Pollution, Not Invasive Species

on May 8, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

Researchers say that although higher levels of phosphates cause some algae blooms, recent blooms around the world may be attributed to lowered levels of nutrients as the result of global warming. Photo courtesy of Dartmouth University.
Researchers say that although higher levels of phosphates cause some algae blooms, recent blooms around the world may be attributed to lowered levels of nutrients as the result of global warming.

Around the world, algae blooms dubbed “rock snot” continue to cover riverbeds as global climate change depletes nutrients from the environment.

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Although many other algae blooms are caused by excessive amounts of phosphates from pollution, researchers from Dartmouth University and Environment Canada say these blooms are caused by lower levels of phosphates. What’s more? The unprecedented algae blooms also aren’t caused by an emergent or invasive strain of algae, but by the same algae native to a given area for tens of thousands of years.

Study leader Brad Taylor says the blooms come as the result of global warming, publishing a paper Wednesday in the journal BioScience.

“The paradox of didymo blooms in low-nutrient rivers is not really a paradox at all,” Taylor said in a press statement. “However, the idea that low phosphorus can cause an algal bloom is hard for people to accept because we are all taught that more nutrients equal more algae.”

Although other algae and bacteria also bloom in localities with lowered nutrients, these rock snot blooms represent an unprecedented new phenomenon, coming soon to a river near you. Especially worrisome to conservationists is the blooming didymosphenia geminata, a strain of algae also known as “didymo.” This particular algae affects the insects on which salmon and trout feed, suggesting to researchers that present eradication efforts may be misguided. Rather, authorities should redirect resources toward attempts to reduce levels of phosphorus in the environment, the study suggests.

"Correctly identifying an invasive species as either native or nonnative is important for developing sound policy, management and scientific research programs because effective responses depend on knowing whether the species' dominance is caused by ecological or evolutionary novelty, changes in environmental conditions that facilitate it, or both," Taylor said.

Past miconceptions about rock snot had been caused by a lack of good scientific study of the algae blooms in many areas. "Even in locations where rock snot had been recorded a century ago," he added, "this information was either ignored or the idea of a new genetic strain was adopted."

As with other aspects of the environment, it appears humans have upset a delicate balance.

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