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Great Lakes Article:

Lake Erie deep in mystery
By John Bartlett

Lori Boughton said Lake Erie never fails to mystify her, and this summer it's providing plenty to ponder.

Of particular interest is a toxic form of blue/green algae that is having a banner year, said the chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of the Great Lakes.

Recent satellite photos of Maumee Bay near Toledo show a vast area of solid green where algae, linked to as many as 75 deaths in Brazil in 1966, covers the lake like a mat.

The algae, called microcystis, was thought to be a thing of the past, a time when Lake Erie was heavily polluted with phosphorous and other nutrients.

However, it mysteriously returned in the summer of 1995 and has reappeared almost every summer since in the lake's western basin, extending eastward from the lake's western shore to about Huron, Ohio.

"It comes and goes, but it certainly has come this year," said Glenn Warren, a researcher with the Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes National Program Office.

Microcystis is found in the central and eastern basins, including Pennsylvania waters, but rarely in large quantities.

This year, there has been surprisingly little noted in local waters a sharp contrast to what's happening in the western basin, said Bob Wellington, an aquatic biologist with the Erie County Health Department who regularly samples lake waters.

But it's not the absence of the algae that has Erie-area researchers scratching their heads this year. It's the apparent lack of botulism-related fish kills and bird deaths.

"It certainly is different this year," Wellington said. "There's been less fish die-offs, no mud puppy die-off and we're just not seeing (a botulism outbreak)," Wellington said.

The rare Type E avian botulism first occurred in Lake Erie in 1999, largely centered in the Erie area. Outbreaks continued in 2000, 2001 and 2002, claiming thousands of birds and untold numbers of fish, mud puppies and other aquatic life.

"We're not seeing much botulism this year and we're not sure why," said Eric Obert, an environmental specialist with the Pennsylvania Sea Grant and a member of the Great Lakes Botulism Task Force.

"However, we have not seen the migration yet, so only time will tell," Obert said.

The botulism outbreaks peaked, or at least were most noticeable, as a result of the many dead birds washing ashore during the fall migrations.

"It's speculation on my part, but it's been cooler this year with cooler water temperatures and more rain, and maybe that has something to do with it," Obert said. "The environmental factors are different this year."

This year's weather also has people wondering if that will have any influence on the formation of a large "dead zone," an area deprived of oxygen, in the central basin, Boughton said.

Small, summertime oxygen-deprived zones occur regularly in the central basin, where the water separates into two layers and the warmer top layer traps the colder waters beneath it. The bottom layer is cut off from an oxygen source, and the plants and animals and decaying material deplete the available oxygen.

However, in 2001 a huge dead zone developed in the central basin. It reoccurred in 2001 and has puzzled researchers.

What's happening this year is not known, but researchers are working to determine the size, extent and significance of any dead zone, Warren said.

A research vessel cruised the central basin, collecting samples Aug. 14 to 19. Several sample stations showed low oxygen levels.

However, additional samples must be taken, he said.

"We don't know the extent of the oxygen depletion yet, and we won't until we do some sampling in September," Warren said.

For now in Erie, the lake's problems and mysteries seem surprisingly benign, but that could change at any time, Boughton said.

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