Invasive Algae Blooms

In the middle of the Arabian Sea Algae Blooms are taking over the base of the food chain which could prove catastrophic for 120 million people living on the sea’s edge. Joaquim Goes, Research Professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York City joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss this growing problem.

TRANSCRIPT

In the middle of the Arabian Sea, algae blooms are taking over the base of the food chain, which could prove catastrophic for 120 million people living on the sea's edge.

Joining me now to discuss this growing problem is Joaquim Goes, research professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York City.

You know, when you look at the pictures from space, this is an enormous amount of algae that's blooming all... in a very short amount of time.

Yes, so to put it in perspective, it's about three times the size of Texas.

And that's pretty huge.

And these changes have happened really recently.

And so we are talking about a period of about 10 to 15 years that this transformation has happened.

Why is it happening there?

In 2005, we showed that the Himalayan snowcaps were melting, and it was intensifying the monsoon winds.

So, when you have intense monsoon winds, it brings up nutrients from the bottom, gives rise to algal blooms.

But these are the good algal blooms, okay, and those are the ones that support fisheries -- their diet and blooms.

But we have had too much of that.

And so most of it goes unconsumed.

It sinks to the bottom.

It sucks out the oxygen from the system, and bacteria start acting on it.

It's a tiny organism, which is very, very different from other algae.

It is a mixotroph, so it can photosynthesize, and it can also do heterotrophic uptake of food.

So they feed on other stuff in the water, like fish eggs, other --

They eat everything.

Everything.

What feeds on them is things like jellyfish, and then you have some things called [ Speaks indistinctly ] And that in fact has changed the food chain so you're getting more squid, more cuttlefish, and then turtles.

So you're eliminating this food chain that goes into the fish, which is consumed by most people in that area.

And then the other part is that this algae also just clogs up the vents and the gills of fish, and --

And that's true.

And if it's taking out the oxygen, then they're suffocating.

Yeah, and in fact, this year off the coast of India we've seen massive sardines beaching, and this is because the hypoxic layer, the ocean layer is coming right up to the surface, and the fish have tried to escape that.

But this hypoxic layer is actually what fuels these algal blooms.

And we have been able to isolate this organism for the first time, and we have been -- we are the only lab in the world, probably, that has this in culture now.

So we have been able to study it very closely, and we're seeing things that we have never, ever seen in other algae, so --

Such as?

For instance, we talk about ocean acidification, okay?

And we think that it will affect the food chain, but this algae, this the 'sea sparkle' that is the invasive algal bloom, has got [ Speaks indistinctly ] within it, which live in an acidic environment, which is much, much lower -- the pH is much lower than our current sea-level pH.

So they can be around for a much longer time.

As the ocean increases in acidity, these will thrive.

This will thrive.

We are going to experience larger and more widespread blooms.

So it's going to be a problem.

And those blooms threaten entire marine ecosystems.

Yes. Not only marine ecosystems.

It's threatening water supply in the Middle East because they depend on desalination plants to bring in water, so those desalination plants get clogged, and so they have to shut down systems.

It affects their refineries, which also require seawater for cooling.

So there is a cascading effect on everything.

Tourism, for instance, in Oman -- I mean, these blooms are so thick that it's decimating the tourism industry as well.

So, you're also working on an early-warning system, on trying to figure out how to predict when these blooms will happen.

Yeah. So, this is a project that was recently founded by NASA.

And so we are supposed to be working with the Ministry of Fisheries in Oman.

And we have been studying... We have been developing a model for quite some time, a couple physical, biology, chemical model, which is done with the Naval Research Lab in Mississippi and with UMaine.

And so we have been able to study the physical processes which bring up this hypoxic water.

So, if you know at what time these hypoxic waters come to the surface, you can tell that the next thing you'll see is algal blooms, blooms.

So, we can do this in advance, but it's five to seven days, and so Oman has a lot of aquaculture farms, so they can move them, you know, to a place where there's enough oxygen.

You're also working on a way to put a microchip inside a cell?

How does that work?

Yeah, this is a fascinating piece of study that we've recently started.

So the cell is about 1 millimeter in size.

And so, as I told you, the internal environment is very different from any algae that we have ever studied.

But it's large enough so that you can put something in it, the organism, and start looking at what has happened within the cell.

So we are interested at looking at the carbon dioxide content, the oxygen content, and without killing the cell, we can study how these variations happen and how it affects the algal -- [ Speaks indistinctly ] environment living within it.

Perhaps I'm naive, but is there anything good that can come out of these cells?

Can we turn this algae into a biofuel?

Can we have it pick up plastic in the ocean?

I mean [ Chuckles ]...

You ask an interesting question, actually, because we have some students working, high school students from the Bronx School of Science.

As you know, Columbia and Lamont provide amazing opportunities for kids from all over the tri-state area.

They can come in and do research projects.

And so we had a student from the Bronx Science School, and there's another student coming from New Jersey -- I'm not sure what's the name of the school -- but they worked this summer, and we tried to find out because we needed a way to try and get the microchip into the cell, and so we were exploring different ways.

One possible way is to micro-inject it.

But we found out that they were able to take up these silicon particles directly and put them into their cytoplasm.

Eat them?

They were eating them.

And so we said, 'If they're eating silicon particles, why don't we try plastic particles and see whether it will enter the food chain?'

And so we found out that they take up plastic as well.

All right.

Joaquim Goes, thanks so much.

You're most welcome.

Thank you so much for having me.