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