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Great reads on algal poison factories, American climate refugees, and more

A Minnesota transplant in a South Carolina lab untangles natural toxins more deadly than sarin gas.

photo of algal bloom on lake st. clair
Algal blooms visible as swirls of green are seen in Lake St. Clair, on the border of Michigan and Ontario.

Inside the Ziploc was dark green muck — freeze-dried algae paste. It looked like a bag cops trot out at press conferences to tout their latest drug bust. Moeller wore a blue protective glove. He held the bag up to the light. Like an illegal drug, its contents were dangerous and valuable. …

Moeller distributes purified liquid toxins by the drop and powdered ones by the granule, mostly for free. “If we pulled out all the toxins from just this bag, we probably could get $4 million for those samples,” he said. “But if I did that, there would be a lot more security people around here.”

— Tony Bartelme, in “Scum,” for The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina.

Even if you are up to speed on the subject of blue-green algae, you are likely to learn interesting and disturbing things from Tony Bartelme’s deeply informed, gracefully crafted report on this steadily worsening “slime spree.” It leads this month’s list of great recent reads.

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By Bartelme’s count, 2018 has seen 500 blooms officially tallied in the lower 48 states as of mid-September (eight apiece in Minnesota and Wisconsin) — and it’s not just a U.S. problem. During the “veritable muck fest” of 2016, 16 other countries were also beset by beach-closing, fish-killing mats of algal foam whose poisons that have killed hundreds of dogs, a fair number of cattle, countless fish and, occasionally, people.

But his main focus is ongoing inquiry at a federal lab where the research chemist Peter Moeller explores cyanobacteria’s apparently limitless capacity to generate new poisons.

Moeller is a Minnesota farm boy who began his chemistry studies at Mankato State, and for the last 24 years has worked at the Hollings Marine Lab, a facility of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Charleston’s James Island. Indeed, he may fairly be credited with creating the $50 million laboratory complex, which uses huge superconducting magnets and mass spectrometers to find the chemical “fingerprint” unique to each of the thousands of toxins gathered there. Most of these are still unknown to science; more arrive all the time.

The risks go way beyond dead dogs and sickened swimmers:

Researchers recently found higher rates of liver disease and cancer in areas near blooms. Investigators in France, Florida and New England also have linked clusters of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) to algae blooms that spawned a toxin called BMAA. In one 2014 study, scientists found that living within 18 miles of algae-prone lakes raised the odds of living in an ALS hotspot by 167 percent.

Scientists have long sought to identify agents that cause ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s illnesses. But in what some call a key piece of that “toxic puzzle,” researchers last year reported that monkeys fed food laced with BMAA developed Alzheimer’s-like neurodegeneration.

On the other hand, some of the compounds could prove medically useful:

In the early 2000s, a microbiologist named Paul Zimba learned about a fish kill near North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound. Zimba gathered scum samples, grew algae cultures in his lab and sent them to Moeller. Moeller’s lab identified a previously undiscovered toxin. Zimba, now director of the Center for Coastal Studies at Texas A&M, tested it on cancer cells. To his surprise, he found the toxin killed a range of different cancer cells. Its unusual selectivity meant it could be possibly used in cancer treatments, especially colorectal cancers.

And there is also a plausible doomsday scenario:

Microalgae in red tides make saxitoxin, and the toxin can be taken in by shellfish, creating a health hazard. Purified, it’s 1,000 times more toxic than sarin gas. … Moeller said that with minimal chemical know-how, terrorists could disperse algae-created toxins and cause widespread illnesses and deaths — use it as a bio-weapon. Which makes him nervous. He’s had inquiries from labs in the Middle East that are interested in his lab’s technology. He has no specific reason to believe any mischief is afoot at these labs, but he worries about the national security implications of unknown toxins and how the United States could lose its scientific edge in solving these mysteries — especially now that NOAA is about to shut down his lab.

I also want to say it’s a joy to see such fine work emerging in a smaller, locally owned, mainstream newspaper — faded into rarity. So, extra kudos  to both Tony Bartelme (a Minneapolis native, by the way) and The Post and Courier for a long string of award-winning projects under his byline.

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When Americans think of “climate refugees,” the source locales are likely to be low-lying island states, or  desertification-prone regions of Africa, India and China; possibly portions of Bangladesh or Central America, where the monsoons are growing ominously larger. It’s time to look closer to home.

A provocative package by The Guardian’s Oliver Milman makes that counterpoint  clear from the opening headline: “America’s era of climate mass migration is here.”

Think of the rising sea encroaching on Miami Beach, of course, but also Virginia Beach. Think of the Alaskan communities small in size but large in number, sinking into softening permafrost or washing away with the coastline. Remember the thousands displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, many to the Houston area, where a dozen years later Hurricane Harvey repeated the process.

Stephen Lipp tells Milman how he got smacked by both, seeing the boulevard in front of his New Orleans house become a bayou, then waiting out the sewage-rich floodwaters in his Houston home by standing on the beds.

The population shift gathering pace is so sprawling that it may rival anything in U.S. history. “Including  all climate impacts, it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine something twice as large as the Dustbowl,” said Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert at Harvard University, referencing the 1930s upheaval in which 2.5 million people moved from the dusty, drought-ridden plains to California. …

The closest analogue could be the Great Migration — a period spanning a large chunk of the 20th century when about 6 million black people departed the Jim Crow south for cities in the north, midwest and west. By the end of this century, sea level rise alone could displace 13 million people, according to one study, including 6 million in Florida. States including Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey will also have to grapple with hordes of residents seeking dry ground.

These projections depend upon whatever the new level is presumed to be at a particular time; a 6-foot increase by the end of the century, neither guaranteed nor particularly controversial, is typical. But there are other factors, too: widening drought, worsening wildfire, intensifying coastal storms.

Where will the migrants go, and how will the flows be managed?  Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of coastal geology at Duke University, and author of a new book likening the coming migrations to a “slow tsunami,” told Milman, “I don’t see the slightest evidence that anyone is seriously thinking about what to do with the future climate refugee stream. It boggles the mind to see crowds of climate refugees arriving in town and looking for work and food.”

Even more boggling if you add two more complications: Many of the displaced will lack the financial means to relocate on their own, even if they move short distances. And moving just far enough inland to reach dry ground may amount to trading new misery for old.

A study published last year found that the economies of the southern states, along with parts of the west, will suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise. In what researchers called potentially one of the largest transfers of wealth in U.S. history, the poorest third of counties are expected to lose up to 20% of their income unless greenhouse gas emissions are severely curtailed. Wealth, and potentially people, are expected to shift north and west.

A reversal of the Sun Belt shift? Perhaps. In a sidebar headlined “Where should you move to avoid climate change misery?” Milman says that “the answer, broadly speaking, is north and maybe west.” Oregon, Washington and Idaho look like good bets, as do the Great Lakes states; Duluth is mentioned as a potentially attractive destination, along with Buffalo and Cincinnati.

One expert suggests that the band of comparative safety and comfort will stretch northward from the 42nd parallel; from a Twin City’s viewpoint,  that’s the line passing through Cedar Rapids and Ames, Iowa.


Ready for a breather from climate gloom? Travel “Inside the Lungs of the Earth” with the Christian Science Monitor’s  Amanda Paulson, on a visit to Brazilian portions of the Amazon basin that also happen to be “the largest terrestrial repository of biodiversity on the planet.”

That’s the reliable assessment of the ecologist Thomas Lovejoy, who coined the term “biological diversity” in 1980 and has been studying the Amazon ever since, often based at a place called Camp 41. In  Paulson’s telling, it may challenge your notions of what that part of the world is like:

In the week I spent in Brazil, sleeping in hammocks in Camp 41 and then exploring the flooded forests along the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers, I didn’t use insect repellent, barely saw a mosquito, and received nothing worse than a few chigger bites. Yes, there are snakes, but despite lots of searching, we never found one. The nutrient-poor soil in many parts of the rainforest means that, despite being the world’s most biodiverse landmass, there isn’t the abundance of life people expect. Spotting birds can be hard, spotting mammals even harder. Most of the evidence of that teeming richness is auditory.

But the abundance is there, nonetheless. The forest itself is a dense backdrop of dozens of shades of green, so thick that just 1 or 2 percent of sunlight filters down to the forest floor. It’s a finely calibrated and uniquely stable environment that allows life to flourish in complex relationships. In the area around Camp 41, one 2.5-acre area of rainforest might have 250 core species of birds and 320 different kinds of trees. Nearly every bird, insect, and amphibian has developed unique features and habits that help each play a specialized role in the system.

Paulson delivers more than eco-travelogue here. Lovejoy and other scientists in the group are both encouraged and concerned about the current pace of deforestation via logging; much progress has been made, if the measure of choice is acres saved from clearcutting. The problem that persists in fragmentation: Lovejoy’s special expertise is in determining the size requirements of a healthy and sustainable rainforest patch, and that number is going up.

Early models indicated 30 or 40 percent deforestation might make the ecosystem break down and turn parts of the southern and eastern Amazon into savanna. Now, Lovejoy and others believe other intrusions — climate change and fire — may have pushed the numbers down to 20 or 25 percent. And 17 percent of the Brazilian Amazon is already gone.

Whatever the precise threshold, scientists don’t want to test it. “Nobody knew at the time of the Dust Bowl that those last trees they were cutting would push them over the edge,” says Lovejoy.

More is at risk than biodiversity. The basin is also a major water resource, even for faraway places:

It sends rainfall all the way up to the Midwestern United States, right when farmers are planting, says Adrian Forsyth, a tropical ecologist who is the president and co-founder of the Amazon Conservation Association. “There’s this trillion-dollar subsidy of rainfall coming to agricultural and urban areas that people simply didn’t know about until recently,” he says.

And, inevitably, there are greenhouse effects — rather large, actually:

Between 90 and 120 billion tons of carbon are stored in the Amazon Basin — equivalent to a decade’s worth of carbon emissions from cars, power plants, and other industrial sources. The Amazon’s ability to absorb more carbon than it emits (making it a carbon “sink”) has counterbalanced all the carbon emissions from the nine Amazon nations since the 1980s, according to some research, but its ability to be a sponge is declining. …

One of the biggest concerns: at what point the Amazon, or parts of the Amazon, might reach a “tipping point,” past which the lush ecosystem — which generates about half of its own rainfall — ceases to exist.

Models differ on the severity of the threat, and there are a number of unknown factors — including fires and drought, which have been an increasing problem in recent years….

Since 2000, the region has been hit by three unprecedented droughts, which led to substantially worse fires. “There’s this 90 billion-ton pool of carbon leaking out slowly with deforestation, and the potential for large belches of CO2  going into the atmosphere through forest fire is very, very real,” says Nepstad.“It’s actually happening; it’s not a hypothetical thing.”