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Algae is the Foundation and the Destroyer of Life

Pyramid of Algae, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Pyramid of Algae, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

In the last month, I have seen two extremely different types of algae, which has had a profound impact on me.  This triangle of algae formed in front of a small foot bridge in Landmannalaugar, Iceland.  Iceland is a country of much geothermal activity and the purest water I have ever encountered. I am not a scientist, but after this trip I am going to learn all I can about algae, since viewing this conglomerate blew my mind.  There were so many colors and such diversity and it provided structure for other living creatures.

Algae with Snails, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Algae with Snails, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

The image above shows many snails making the algae home.  In fact, according to NASA, "Single-celled algae called phytoplankton are a main source of food for fish and other aquatic life and account for half of he photosynthetic activity on Earth–that's good."( http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2015/26jun_algae/)  However, the NASA article goes on to say that certain varieties such as cyanobacteria produce toxins that can harm humans and other creatures.  It should also be noted that cyanobacteria is a bacteria that results from the decomposition of the original algae bloom.  

Nature Morte with Snail, C-44 Canal in the Indian River Lagoon Watershed

Nature Morte with Snail, C-44 Canal in the Indian River Lagoon Watershed

The cyanobacteria and other proteins entering the Indian River Lagoon Watershed are not promoting life, and are very different than the algae clusters in Iceland.  Right in front of a Big Ag outflow, we saw this dead apple snail on top of the algae.  

Phantoms Swirling Over a Lonely Reed, C-44 Canal

Phantoms Swirling Over a Lonely Reed, C-44 Canal

When I encountered the algae in the C-44 canal, it felt much more sinister than the algae in Iceland.  The weird swirls of cyanobacteria looked more like phantoms of destruction infiltrating our water, which we cannot live without. I felt instantly afraid.  The single reed on the surface seemed so fragile, a sign of life ebbing away instead of being supported.  

The Colors of the Earth in a Microcosm

The Colors of the Earth in a Microcosm

The algae in Iceland was so vibrant and looking at it made me think of a healthy planet.  We have already caused so much destruction to our waterways that what we think of as healthy is likely some sort of new normal that we have gotten used to in comparison to images of highly polluted toxic waterways.  I realized when seeing this algae that I have never seen water so full of life.  In Iceland, especially among the old timers, it is very popular to take algae baths for your health. 

Water Lettuce Enshrouded by Cyanobacteria

Water Lettuce Enshrouded by Cyanobacteria

On the other hand, signs are now posted wherever cyanobacteria outbreaks occur advising people to avoid contact with the water.  It is not even safe to breathe near it.  Water lettuce is an invasive species frequently managed by water management districts to ensure that it doesn't take over waterways.  Yet, manatees and other creatures do eat water lettuce and it is safe for them to do so, unless the water lettuce is laced with cyanobacteria, as in the image above.  We arrived at this sight right after a local news station filmed a manatee eating nearby.  We did not see the manatee but from seeing the lettuce in the water, we could tell the manatee was also ingesting harmful bacteria and inhaling airborne toxins.

Ropes of Algae, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Ropes of Algae, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

When I looked closely at sections of the pyramid of algae by the Landmannalaugar footbridge, it made me think of sweaters, or the ropey artworks of Polish fiber sculptress Magdalena Abakanowicz. Every inch was colorful and rich with textures, seemingly oozing with life.

The Birth of Destruction, C-44 Canal

The Birth of Destruction, C-44 Canal

Having been in direct contact with beneficial algae in Iceland and a huge harmful algae bloom creating cyanobacteria on the verge of infiltrating the Indian River Lagoon for the second time this summer, I want to learn everything I can about algae. These macro images revealed the workings of algae and proteins in ways I can't pretend to understand, although I do know there is an interaction between algae and proteins.  At UC San Diego, there is a center for algae biotechnology.  Their research aims include "developing genetic tools and investigating algae as a platform for biofuel and therapeutic protein production."  Here's a link to their website:  http://algae.ucsd.edu/mayfield/research/index.html.  Blue green algae is one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet and used in many healing centers.  Yet, cyanobacteria is harmful and decomposing proteins from animal waste can take over ecosystems.  When I looked through my macro lens at the section of pollution near the agricultural outflow, it reminded me of a fetus being surrounded by attacking substances instead of being supported by healthy amniotic fluid.  It seemed like a strange metaphor for what is happening to our water.

The Face of Algae, Landsmannalaugar, Iceland

The Face of Algae, Landsmannalaugar, Iceland

The image above reminded me of a face of a creature, perhaps an owl.  The rich ocher, gold, blue-green, and turquoise called to mind the geothermal activity I saw at Woman's Mountain in Iceland and in higher elevations at this site.  These colors belonged to the earth in its gurgling, seething, transforming state.  I was drawn to this algae instead of being afraid and visited the strange pyramid multiple times during our visit, attracted by different sections of the mat each time.  

Protein Invasion

Protein Invasion

I was also strangely drawn to the algae and invasive proteins in the C-44 canal.  Yet as I looked I knew it was also dangerous and that I would never study another bloom without adequate protective gear.  I actually had not known we would be on the water for so long.  We were following the bloom and it didn't end until the Port Mayaca lock at Lake Okeechobee.  The water quality of the entire 23-mile canal was seriously compromised. 

Respiration

Respiration

This image made me think of breathing, with all the bubbles.  Algae is a major contributor of oxygen on this planet.  Without it there would be no life.   Yet this image is from the canal and the life being created by the algae is robbing the life of what lived here before and what it will touch when it enters the Indian River Lagoon, what was once one of the most biodiverse regions in all of North America.

River of Slime, C-44 Canal

River of Slime, C-44 Canal

Threads and Bubbles, C-44 Canal

Threads and Bubbles, C-44 Canal

I am not really sure what is happening in the image above.  I felt like I was witnessing something on a cellular level.  Though I was viewing the threads and bubbles through a macro lens, I knew it was much larger than the building blocks of life or cancer cells viewed through a microscope.

Cyanobacteria Weaving its Way Through the Riparian Landscape

Cyanobacteria Weaving its Way Through the Riparian Landscape

Everywhere I looked, the cyanobacteria was infiltrating the riparian landscape.  When this section of water with reflected grasses caught my eye, I thought it was beautiful–as if a giant brushstroke had been painted on the water–even though my mind categorized it as awful. The swath of algae created another level of intricacy in the composition, yet this simple addition was sinister despite its transparent appearance.  Under the right, or actually wrong conditions for the planet and estuary, this bacteria can quickly multiply out of control.  It becomes as thick as styrofoam and creates a horrible stench that makes being near it virtually impossible.  The algae I encountered in Iceland did not smell bad and people actually apply it to their skin for beauty treatments.

Earth and Water in its Most Primitive State, Landsmannalaugar

Earth and Water in its Most Primitive State, Landsmannalaugar

If someone told me to dip a sponge in the algae above and apply it to my face, I would not be nearly as afraid as I was riding on a boat above the toxic cyanobacteria.  And if I could make paints from this algae I surely would.  The intense yellows, blues, and greens reminded me of a Renaissance palette. 

Algae Trapping Organic Material C-44 Canal

Algae Trapping Organic Material C-44 Canal

The algae in the C-44 canal reminded me of the colors I saw in toxic waste dumps in New Jersey before the cleaned up the Meadowlands.   This link provides information on blue-green algae outbreaks on public health and the health of pets: http://projects.sgvtribune.com/blue-green-algae/.  The article focuses on lakes in California, but it is applicable everywhere.  Drought, climate change, and agricultural runoff are exacerbating the problem and creating explosive blooms that are becoming health hazards.    

In the Shadow of the Locks

In the Shadow of the Locks

The image was taken at the St. Lucie locks.  When I looked through my view finder at the invasive vegetation and the cyanobacteria, I saw the reflection of the locks above.  The impairment of the Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee and their estuaries are directly linked to discharges from Lake Okeechobee with its excessively high nitrogen levels, heavy metals, and other toxins.  We traced the cyanobacteria on the canal back to its source, and it extended the entire way, lock to lock.

Alien Water

Alien Water

By not enforcing water standards, and in fact consistently lowering them over the past almost six years, since Governor Scott took office and I coincidentally  began my water project, the face of water in some areas in Florida has been altered as to become unrecognizable.  This has consistently been done without taking into account the impact this will have on the health of the citizens of ecosystems.  NASA, the EPA, NOAA and the US Geological Survey are working to track cyanobacteria outbreaks throughout the country via satellite data.  They are able to detect the cyanobacteria when it is still lingering below the surface of the water.  I suspect that what they are seeing in Florida these days is comparable to the markers in Third World Countries with very compromised waterways.  My hope is that more and more people will take these algae outbreaks seriously and learn the differences between good and bad bacteria, so that they won't be duped into believing something is safe and naturally occurring when it is a by-product of large scale farming and the sugar industry that could and should be cleaned up. Toxic cyanobacteria is very different than the thermophilic algae I encountered in Iceland.