Climate Change is Pushing Lake Okeechobee’s Water Levels Higher — And that’s Bad News For Algae Blooms, Flood Risk

More powerful storms. Heavier extreme rainfall events. Storms with higher potential energy. These are the result of a human-forced warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. And South Florida finds itself sandwiched between heavier evaporation flows streaming off the Gulf of Mexico, a more volatilely stormy North Atlantic, and large rivers of moisture streaming in from the Southeast Pacific.

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(Atmospheric water vapor levels over South Florida during late June of 2016. South Florida sits between numerous heavily laden atmospheric moisture flows. As human forced warming increases evaporation, these moisture flows expand, resulting in heavier rainfall potentials during storms over South Florida. This climate change dynamic is increasing over-topping flood risks for Lake Okeechobee even as the added heat and rainfall run-off enhances the potential for toxic algae blooms like the one now afflicting South Florida. Image source: Earth Nullschool).

And as these moisture-enhanced storms of climate change dump heavier and heavier rains over South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, the choice appears to be one between flood risk or toxic algae blooms.

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Flood Risk Worsens With Climate Change

Lake Okeechobee sits at the heart of South Florida. Covering 730 square miles, the lake is bounded on the north, east, and west by farms. Run-off from these farms streams into the lake, feeding the growth of algae blooms. As the Earth’s atmosphere and ocean warmed due to human greenhouse gas emissions, rainfall events over South Florida have grown more intense. This trend increases run-off from pesticide, phosphorous, and nitrogen rich soils which then swell the lake with these chemicals and compounds — many of which promote the growth of cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae).

The increasingly heavy rains also force lake levels higher. During Winter of 2016, the wettest January in South Florida’s climate record pushed Lake Okeechobee’s water levels to 16.4 feet above sea level by February. November through May is South Florida’s dry season. So abnormally wet conditions during a typically dry period greatly increased flood risk for communities surrounding the lake as South Florida entered its June through October wet season.

Heavy rains have continued through recent months and, in order to mitigate the heightened flood risk, the US Army Corp of Engineers has been pumping large volumes of the run-off enhanced, nutrient-rich waters out of the lake in order to relieve pressure on the Hoover Dike. The Dike, for its part, is a 132 mile system of levees surrounding the lake and preventing its waters from flooding local communities during heavy rainfall events.

Lake Okeechobee Algae laden waters South Florida late June

(Lake Okeechobee [upper right of frame] and the algae-laden coastal waters of South Florida as seen in this June 26 LANCE MODIS satellite shot.)

Paul Gray, a scientist with Audubon Florida and Lake Okeechobee expert recently noted:

“One big storm would be a bad situation, really bad. We are nearing the heart of the tropical season and the corps knows they are one storm away from levels they are not comfortable with.”

To reduce pressure on the Dike, the Corps likes to keep Lake Okeechobee in a range of 12.5 to 15.5 feet above sea level. This creates a buffer zone to allow for the impacts of unexpectedly strong storms — like tropical cyclones — which can alone produce enough rainfall to push lake water levels between 1-4 feet higher.

At around 18.5 to 19.5 feet above sea level, the Hoover Dike system is under high risk of a breach or of over-topping. An event which would flood thousands of homes and businesses with 1-5 feet of water and generate a serious risk of loss of life.

So this year, with the dry season acting like the rainy season and with the rainy season now underway, the US Army Corps of Engineers has been releasing much larger volumes from the Lake in what some could call a frantic effort to keep water levels there in the safe range. These efforts, as of Thursday, July 7 produced a Lake Okeechobee water level of 14.93 feet — which was at the top edge of the safe zone. But the effort came at the cost of flushing nutrient rich waters into South Florida’s rivers and estuaries.

Mitigate Flood Risk and Toxic Algae Blooms Result

During recent years, heavy use of fertilizers has loaded up farmland soils surrounding Lake Okeechobee with phosphorous and nitrogen. As human-forced climate change has produced more extreme rainfall events over lands surrounding the lake, greater runoff of these nutrient-rich soils and chemicals into the lake has resulted.

Phosphorous levels, which government regulators like to keep in the range of 40 parts per billion in lake waters, has risen to 100 to 200 parts per billion. That’s 2.5 to 5 times the safe allowable level. And as the Army Corps of Engineers ramped up lake water outflows into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers during recent months, this influx of high nutrient lake waters helped to spur the large algae blooms now afflicting the region.

John Campbell, a spokesperson for the US Army Corps of Engineers recently noted that people often ask:

“‘Why didn’t you release more water?’ Well, this is what releasing more water looks like.”

Due to the increased water outflows from Lake Okeechobee, high nutrient levels hit river systems warmed to bacterial growth enhancing temperatures by climate change. Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) populations in these river and estuary systems then exploded. Goo painted waterways green, putrescent mats of algae formed in calmer waters, and airs smelling of rotten eggs wafted up from the suffocating rivers. These explosive and toxic bacterial growths prompted a declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Rick Scott as four South Florida counties were heavily impacted by the algae blooms.

Algae bloom Florida

(Toxic algae blooms like this one have resulted in beach closures across South Florida. Human-caused climate change spurs an increasing incidence of such toxic algae blooms by increasing water temperatures, which enhances algae growth, and by spurring more extreme heavy rainfall events — which generates increased nutrient influx into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Image source: Surfrider.)

Directly, cyanobacteria can produce a number of toxins capable of harming animal and human organ systems. Most common toxins are neurotoxins and toxins that impact the gastrointestinal track — particularly the liver. In addition, large blooms can deprive waterways of life-giving oxygen. Such anoxic conditions spur fish kills and mass production of hydrogen-sulfide generating organisms — a powerful toxin which generates the sulfuric rotten eggs smell that many South Florida locations are now reporting.

Indirectly, the blooms are unpleasant, unsightly and result in beach closures. And since the blooms became widespread, South Florida has experienced losses to its tourist industry (see toxic algae chokes business) — one of the biggest revenue producers for the State. Yet one more example of how human-forced warming not only harms the health of the natural world, but also harms human systems that rely on such natural wealth and beauty to function.

(Large algae blooms spurred by rising water outflows from an increasingly flood-stressed Lake Okeechobee resulted in tourism industry losses during the Fourth of July weekend of 2016. However, residents are rightfully concerned over long-term health risks due to the algae blooms. Note that purple water in gaps between the algae as well as reports of ‘rotten eggs’ smell is circumstantial evidence of increasing concentrations of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria that tends to thrive in the anoxic dead zones produced by the algae. Video Source: CBS Youtube.)

Conditions in Context

The US Army Corps of Engineers is now reducing Lake Okeechobee water outflows in an effort to limit harmful algae blooms over South Florida waterways and estuaries. Outflow levels, as of June 30 were cut by 35 percent. As a result, some of the nutrients feeding algae blooms will be removed from waterways. But it’s questionable if the large algae blooms can be entirely halted by this mitigation.

Warmer than normal temperatures and heavier than normal rains are expected over this region during the coming weeks and months and these conditions will add to bloom promotion even without a larger pulse of water coming from Lake Okeechobee. In addition, reducing water flows from the lake will again push the lake to rise. And that puts South Florida one large storm away from risking an over-topping of the Hoover Levee System.

Climate change, in this context, has therefore put South Florida in a tough bind between worsening algae blooms over its waterways or worsening flood threats from a swelling Lake Okeechobee. A more immediate problem juxtaposed to the longer term risk of sea level rise — a human-forced ocean invasion which could flood the whole of South Florida by or before the end of this Century.

Links:

Why Drain Lake O? One Storm Could Push it Over its Limits.

What is Causing the Toxic Algae Blooms in Florida’s Waterways?

Army Corps to Reduce Lake Outflows Fueling Toxic Algae Blooms

Toxic Algae Chokes Florida Tourist Industry

Earth Nullschool

LANCE MODIS

CBS Youtube

Surfrider

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

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NCAR: Global Temperature Increase To Lower Oxygen Content of Most Ocean Zones by the 2030s

A reduction in the amount of oxygen dissolved in the oceans due to climate change is already discernible in some parts of the world and should be evident across large regions of the oceans between 2030 and 2040. — The National Center for Atmospheric Research in a press release on April 27th.

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Loss of oxygen in the world’s oceans. It’s one of those really, really bad effects of a human-forced warming of our Earth. One of the those climate monsters in the closet that Steve Pacala talks about. The kind of thing we really don’t want to set loose.

Deoxygenated Oceans as Major Killing Mechanism During Hothouse Extinctions

The damage caused by ocean oxygen loss is multi-variant and wide-ranging. The most obvious harm comes in the form of generating environments in which oxygen-dependent life in the oceans can no longer breathe. Any living creature that filters oxygen out of the water for respiration falls under threat due to lowered ocean oxygen levels. A group that includes pretty much all the advanced, multi-cellular life in the seas.

A press statement from the new NCAR study notes:

Scientists know that a warming climate can be expected to gradually sap the ocean of oxygen, leaving fish, crabs, squid, sea stars, and other marine life struggling to breathe.

namibia-hydrogen-sulfide-emission-2007

(Hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria blooms off the coast of Namibia during 2007. Hydrogen sulfide is a highly toxic gas. One that is produced by microbes that live in waters containing little or no oxygen. Image source: Earth Observatory.)

But a second, less immediately obvious hit comes in the form of generating expanding anoxic environments that favor the proliferation of toxin-producing microbes. Called dead zones, these oxygen-poor regions not only provide a suffocation threat to sea life, but they also form areas of water in which environmental toxins can build up. The result is a long-lasting negative impact to the health of life in the ocean and, in the most extreme cases, on land and in the airs as well.

The worst of these toxin-generating microbes are the hydrogen-sulfide producing bacteria. An ancient organism that is incompatible with oxygen-dependent life. A horror out of deep time that has tended to crop up again and again on the list of usual suspects of major hothouse extinction killers. A likely perpetrator of the big ocean and land die offs during pretty much all global warming based extinctions. An organism that dominated the world’s seas and likely vented its deadly gasses into the airs of the world of the Permian — during the worst die-off Earth has ever seen.

In short, hydrogen sulfide is deadly to almost all forms of life that currently dominate the world’s oceans, lands, and airs. And the bacteria that produces hydrogen sulfide requires oxygen-poor environments in which to grow and thrive. A world ocean high in oxygen keeps these little killers hidden away in the deep, dark corners of our Earth. But heat the world ocean up. Deprive it of oxygen. And they start to come out and become a threat (see more in Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse).

Oxygen Loss to Become Widespread by the 2030s

Already today we see regions of the world ocean that are experiencing oxygen loss. Some of this oxygen loss is due to a process called eutrophication. In eutrophication, nutrients overload the ecosystems of water-based environments. As nutrient content rises, large bacterial blooms emerge. Eventually, these blooms overpopulate the waters and devour all the food sources. When the microbes then die en masse, their decay robs the surrounding waters of oxygen — generating a dead zone.

Eutrophication has been sapping the world’s oceans of oxygen over wider and wider regions due to both agricultural run-off (fertilizers and top soils flushed into rivers, lakes and oceans that feed large microbial blooms and related dead zones) and due to nitrogen fall out from fossil fuel burning. But human forced global warming also plays a key roll in the loss of oxygen to the world ocean system.

Ocean Deoxygenation Map

(According to a new study from NCAR, ocean oxygen levels are already starting to fall in some regions due to global warming. If warming continues, NCAR finds that most of the world’s oceans will experience some level of oxygen loss due to this warming and due to a related increased stratification of surface waters. Image source: NCAR.)

The new NCAR study provides an excellent description of how warming the world’s surface waters can reduce ocean oxygen levels:

The entire ocean—from the depths to the shallows—gets its oxygen supply from the surface, either directly from the atmosphere or from phytoplankton, which release oxygen into the water through photosynthesis. Warming surface waters, however, absorb less oxygen. And in a double whammy, the oxygen that is absorbed has a more difficult time traveling deeper into the ocean. That’s because as water heats up, it expands, becoming lighter than the water below it and less likely to sink.

Waters that are less likely to sink are less likely to mix. And waters that are less likely to mix transfer less of the atmosphere’s oxygen to the global ocean. It’s a process called ocean stratification. A set of circumstances triggered by warming that can sap the world’s waters of their ability to support life even as it enhances their ability to generate environments favorable to toxin-producing microbes. And in the absolute worst cases, a stratified, oxygen-deprived ocean can transition into a dead, life-on-Earth-threatening Canfield Ocean.

Mobile Ocean Dead Zone

(Mobile ocean dead zones, like this one seen off the West African Coast during 2015, may grow more widespread as the world’s surface waters are depleted of oxygen due to a fossil fuel emission based warming. A new study from NCAR both explains how warming waters can hold less oxygen and notes that loss of oxygen to ocean surface waters becomes very widespread by the 2030s. Image source: Biogeosciences.)

In the NCAR study, which is well worth reading in full, scientists used model runs to determine when and where climate change would start to deprive the world ocean system of oxygen. The study found that regions off the coast of West Africa, regions west of South America, an area to the west of Australia, and a section of the Beaufort Sea were already experiencing lower levels of ocean oxygen due to global warming. West African seas were the first and hardest hit by warming in the models. This is interesting due to the fact that Namibia on the West Coast of Africa is one of the only regions of the world now observed to experience blooms of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria that extend into the surface waters. West African waters have also generated a number of mobile, low-oxygen dead zones that have spiraled on off into the North Atlantic.

The fact that the NCAR study indicates that global warming has already reduced ocean oxygen levels in a region that is producing both dead zones and, in the case of Nambia, periods during which hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria appear at the surface, is cause for some concern. For by the 2030s, the NCAR model study indicates that global warming will be actively reducing ocean oxygen levels across the vast majority of the North Pacific, a majority of the South Pacific, most of the South Atlantic, and pretty much all of the Indian Ocean region covered in the new research. This raises the risk that open water dead zones like the ones seen off Africa and even hydrogen sulfide producing hot spots like Nambia may begin to creep into other regions of the world ocean — generating further threats to sea life, to fishing industry, and to human beings who depend on healthy oceans for livelihood and for life.

Links:

Widespread Loss of Ocean Oxygen (due to Climate Change) to Become Noticeable by the 2030s

Steve Pacala

Earth Observatory

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse

Biogeosciences

Mobile Ocean Dead Zones

Eutrophication

Ocean Stratification

Canfield Ocean

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to June

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