Tag Archives: algal bloom

Does the Earth Have AIDS?

If it’s ever fallen to your lot to care for someone with advanced AIDS, you know this feeling: It’s not fair.

It’s really not fair. With a weakened immune system, the illnesses just line up to attack. No sooner do you fight off pneumonia, then mycobacterium avium attacks. And right behind it comes a wave of candidiasis or wasting syndrome. Eventually, you just can’t fight anymore. It’s just not fair.

Together with my brothers, Chris and Rob, I saw this first-hand some twenty-five years ago. We survived the last attack after weeks of treatment and struggle, but what’s next? Sure enough, something with an unpronounceable name – cytomegalovirus or something – was waiting to pounce.

I will admit, I thought those days were behind me. But I’m having an eerie sense of déjà vu as I watch the almost daily developments in the natural world. Something’s happening, and it looks like the earth’s immune systems are failing. We just came off a winter of brutal extremes: Alaska was broiling, while the East was locked in a deep freeze from the once-unknown “polar vortex.” California is now in the grip of the worst drought ever to hit the state, hard on the heels of the record multi-year drought in Texas. Thousands of square miles of American forests have fallen to the now-rabid pine bark beetle. Washington’s governor is sounding the alarm that rising ocean acidity is destroying the state’s oyster industry as the seas soak up so much atmospheric carbon. Flood insurance rates nationwide have skyrocketed with rising sea levels and increased storm intensity.

And that’s just here in the U.S.  Globally, last month was the hottest June on record for land, following the same record for May; and it was the hottest of any month ever for oceans. We’ve now had 352 consecutive months of global heat exceeding the 20th Century average. Massive droughts have hit exports of Russian and Australian wheat and American corn in the last two years. Global food prices have spiked repeatedly, stoking food riots and conflict throughout the Arab world. Central America’s devastating storms have undermined social structures to a point where hundreds of thousands are migrating in a desperate search for food and safety.

I wonder if the young among us even know that it wasn’t always this way. Maybe plagues of biblical proportions have always been the stuff of ordinary life, no?

Well just this week, a new plague has appeared on the scene, in a place where I wasn’t expecting it. We heard in yesterday’s news that the city of Toledo has just lost its drinking water. About 400,000 Ohioans have been warned not to drink their tap water because of a dangerous toxin called microcystis that’s spread all over Lake Erie and other Great Lakes.

Courtesy Circle of Blue

Courtesy Circle of Blue

Microcystis is a type of algae that’s been going wild in recent years. If consumed, it affects liver function and causes diarrhea or worse. You can’t get rid of it by boiling; that even makes it more toxic. Even skin contact can be harmful, causing burning and rashes. Some people are even warned not to wash their hands under the tap.

And that’s just the people. The algae-choked water can also kill livestock and pets, not to mention the thousands of species of animals that rely on the lake habitat. And in the lake, the algal blooms result in enormous “dead zones,” where bacteria, feeding on dying algae, deplete all the oxygen in the water, killing all fish and other marine life.

Oh goodness! Another random freak event besetting the good American people?

Cytocystis algae make water toxic

Microcystis algae makes water toxic. Courtesy Tom Archer

Almost certainly not. Experts tell us that this is caused by two principal factors. The first is runoff of chemical fertilizers from Midwest corn and soybean fields, and wastewater from sewage treatment plants. But climate change is making it much worse, according to scientists from Oregon and North Carolina: Microcystis bacteria thrive in warm weather and high CO2 concentrations; and today’s increasingly torrential rainstorms wash more farm fertilizers and city sewer runoff into the lake, fueling the algae’s growth.

So in our impaired natural systems, microcystis water poisoning looks to be the plague-du-jour. Sure, it’s only a half million people losing their clean water, and by sometime in September or October, the algae should be gone for the season. But these almost-daily plagues could well be the groaning of a global immune system that has been severely damaged by our abuse and neglect.

We’ve heard that word – groaning – before, haven’t we? St. Paul wrote it almost two thousand years ago: “The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). I don’t know how things sounded like in Paul’s day, but the groaning is getting pretty loud in ours. Isn’t it maybe time to ask whether we need to change the way we’re treating the Creation?

Because what we’re doing to it is not fair.