Saturday, July 18, 2009

Mystery Blob Off Alaska



A great, oily, oozing blog blob off the coast of Alaska, originally thought to be an oil spill, has been identified as a massive algal bloom:
"We responded as if it were an oil product," says Coast Guard Petty Officer Terry Hasenauer. "It was described to us as an oil-like substance, thick and lingering below the surface of the water. Those characteristics can indicate heavy, degraded oil, maybe crude oil, or possibly an intermediate fuel oil." Meanwhile, the story spread over the internet like an oil-spill, giving lots of people a queasy feeling.

Test results released Thursday showed the blob wasn't oil, but a plant — a massive bloom of algae. While that may seem less dangerous, a lot of people are still uneasy. It's something the mostly Inupiat Eskimo residents along Alaska's northern coast say they could never remember seeing before.

Algal blooms are a common and often menacing event along many U.S. coastlines. Some strains are toxic and can close beaches and poison seafood, posing a hazard to consumers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a forecasting system for the Gulf of Mexico to warn of harmful Florida blooms. . . .

While Alaskans may find the algal blob unusual if not frightening, scientists say that algal blooms are nothing new in Arctic Ocean waters, though the blob itself might be a little weird. Brenda Konar, a marine biology professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said algal outbreaks can and do occur even in icy Arctic waters. It just takes the right combination of nutrients, light and water temperature, she said. "Algae blooms," she says. "It's sort of like a swimming pool that hasn't been cleaned in a while." The blob, Konar said, is a microalgae made up of "billions and billions of individuals." "We've observed large blooms in the past off Barrow although none of them at all like this," Barry Sherr, an Oregon State University professor of oceanography, said in an e-mail. "The fact that the locals say they've never seen anything like it suggests that it might represent some exotic species which has drifted into the region, perhaps as a result of global change. For the moment that's just a guess."
TIME.

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