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From the Publisher

PublisherFrom the Publisher

(Publisher’s NOTE: In my Tuesday column, I featured an excerpt from an article entitled “Elemental Need,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, which appears in THE NEW YORKER issue of March 6, 2023. I want to use today’s column to continue that Elizabeth Kolbert article, because I consider the material therein to be very, very important for us Belizeans to absorb and analyze.)

On September 1, 2018, a young man named Abraham Duarte was pulled over for speeding in the city of Cape Coral, in southwest Florida. He jumped out of his car and took off. Before him stood some apartment buildings that faced a canal. Duarte ran around the buildings and threw himself into the water. When the police caught up with him, he was having trouble swimming. ‘I need help!’ he cried. ‘I’m going to die!’

One of the cops sounded sympathetic. “You need to get out of that stuff,” he advised. “Seriously, man, that is going to kill you.” Duarte struggled to make his way back to shore, through a bank of green slime so thick that it made the water look solid. He started to retch. The cops fished him out and cuffed him.

Among his many ill-considered moves, Duarte had flung himself into a toxic algae bloom. The body-cam footage of the incident, released by the Cape Coral Police Department, went viral. Newscasters chuckled over the crime-fighting slime. But the story, which Dan Egan relates in detail in “The Devil’s Element,” is he argues, “more than a meme. It’s an omen.” 

On a farm, crop yields increase when phosphorus is applied. Phosphorus that makes its way into lakes, streams, and canals also promotes plant growth. Unfortunately, the aquatic organisms that tend to do best are the kind that no one wants to see around. And so there are two sides to the phosphorus problem — one shortage, the other excess. 

In a toxic algae bloom, tiny photo-synthetic organisms reproduce explosively, then throw off chemicals that, in addition to nausea, can cause brain and liver damage. And, when the algae die en masse, a fresh hell ensues. Their decomposition sucks oxygen out of the water, creating aquatic dead zones where almost nothing can survive. 

At the bright-green center of Florida’s excess-phosphorus problem lies Lake Okeechobee. The lake receives as much as two million pounds of phosphorus a year — about ten times what biologists think it can safely take in — much of it from agricultural runoff. In the summer of 2018, around the time that Duarte took his dive, ninety percent of Okeechobee’s surface was covered in toxic slime. Water released from the lake, via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, made so many people sick that Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, declared a state of emergency. Egan visited that summer, hoping to take a boat trip down the Caloosahatchee, but his chosen guide, an ecologist named John Cassani, refused to take him, on the ground that it was too dangerous.

“Things are thoroughly screwed up,” Cassani told him. “Thoroughly.”
 
  Harmful algal blooms, or HARs, also plague Lake Erie. Mostly, the blooms interfere with fishing and tourism — dense, stinking slime is a turnoff to visitors — but in 2014 some of the toxins got sucked into Toledo’s public water supply. The city was forced to issue a do-not-drink order to four hundred thousand residents in the area, and Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, activated the National Guard.

Lake Erie’s troubles can be traced to concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, that dot the Maumee River watershed, in northwestern Ohio. Millions of cows and pigs in these CAFOs spend their days converting phosphorus-fertilized soy and corn into phosphorus-laden manure, much of which washes out of the operations and into the water. In Egan’s words, the Maumee now functions “like a syringe” that pumps thousands of tons of phosphorus a year into Lake Erie’s westernmost reaches. 

Other lakes that have recently experienced HABs include Lake Superior, Lake Champlain, Lake Tahoe, Lake Winnebago, and Seneca Lake. Indeed, Egan writes, “a map of US lakes and rivers suffering from blue-green algae outbreaks today, looks like, well, a map of the United States.” And the situation isn’t much better outside the U.S. A few years ago, researchers at Stanford and NASA analyzed three decades’ worth of satellite images to assess the conditions of some seventy large lakes around the globe, including Lake Baikal, Lake Nicaragua, and Lake Victoria. They found that “peak summertime bloom intensity” had increased in two-thirds of them.

Meanwhile, dead zones in the oceans, too, are expanding. These zones — a large one forms every summer in the Gulf of Mexico — are also produced by fugitive nutrients. Scientists warn that, as nutrient loads continue to grow and the oceans heat up, the problem will only get worse. (Warm water holds less oxygen than cold.) A trio of British researchers have speculated that, “if our descendants are heedless,” human beings might produce “large-scale and long-lasting global anoxia”— which is to say, a planet-wide marine dead zone. In the judgment of Stephen Porder, a professor of ecology at Brown and the author of “Elemental: How Five Elements Changed Earth’s Past and Will Shape Our Future” (forthcoming from Princeton), the consequences of this would be so catastrophic as to be unimaginable.  

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