WASHINGTON DC – As climate change warms the Earth, higher-latitude regions of the United States – including parts of Pennsylvania – are at greater risk to be affected by a toxin from blooming algae, according to research announced Monday (Oct. 23, 2023) by the Carnegie Institution for Science.
The toxin, called microcystin, affects liver functions. It can cause death in wild and domestic animals and, in rare instances, humans. In addition to creating hazards for people and the environment, the toxin also poses economic risks for fishing and tourism industries.
The research indicates microcystin concentrations can be expected to increase as temperatures rise. The harmful algae, spurred by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agriculture and other human activities, could thrive in waters with temperatures of between 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The team’s findings were published in the journal “Nature Water.”
Northeast, northwest, southcentral Pennsylvania affected
Over three widespread samples taken during a 10-year period, the research team found several lakes across northeastern, northwestern, and southcentral Pennsylvania showed higher microcystin levels.
An example: Lake Erie (at top). In 2014 an algae bloom there led to high levels of microcystin in public water intakes. Residents in some areas were instructed not to drink tap water due to risks of exposure. Even more affected by the problem are food-producing states that include North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
“Lakes are sentinels of climate change,” Carnegie Senior Staff Scientist Dr. Anna Michalak said. “They hold the vast majority, 87 percent, of the liquid freshwater on the Earth’s surface. The warming and precipitation shifts associated with climate change pose some of the greatest threats to water quality around the world, and to the health of aquatic ecosystems.”
In some areas, the study noted, the relative risk of exceeding water quality guidelines will increase by up to 50 percent in coming decades.
The research team suggested authorities heighten their urgency to develop water quality strategies that prepare for and manage problems wrought by higher warming levels.
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