Environment

How to die from toxic algal blooms

A comic about how a natural process led to an unnatural death — and what it means for the living

February 21, 2020
A diatom (a type of green algae) in the shape of a coffin.
A diatom (a type of algae) in the shape of a coffin. [Credit: MK Manoylov | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Toxic algal blooms tend to stay underwater, so when a particularly powerful bloom killed an air-breathing human, it shocked the world.

A young oyster farmer died on the shores of Brittany, France after inhaling the toxic gas produced from a large algal bloom. That death resulted from a series of different unfortunate events stemming from pollution, bacteria, and far too much of a good thing.

If you, too, want to know how to die from a toxic algae bloom, read the first ever comic published on Scienceline created by MK Manoylov.

The title card for the comic. The top looks like a 50s horror comic. The page explains that an 18-year-old oyster farmer died after breathing in the toxic gas produced from a toxic algal bloom.

This page explains how a toxic algal bloom occurs. Single-celled organisms called algae need nitrogen and phosphorus to grow. These normally enter the water system slowly, livestock manure runoff, fertilizer runoff, and human sewage spilling into an aquatic ecosystem can put far too much nitrogen and phosphorus into an aquatic ecosystem.

This page explains eutrophication, or when lots of nitrogen and phosphorus cause lots of algae to grow. Eutrophication is what causes a thick mat of bright green algae to sit on top of the surface of, say, a lake, which blocks sunlight for the aquatic plants below. Though fish eat algae, there's still far too much of it. The algae will use up all the nitrogen and phosphorus eventually, which is where problems really start.

When the algae use up all the nitrogen and phosphorus, they essentially don't have the building blocks to their food anymore so they begin to die off. Bacteria then decompose the algae in the water, but bacteria use up a lot of oxygen to do so. They end up consuming all the oxygen in the water system, killing off fish and other life in the water.

When the oxygen in a water system is gone, it's called a "dead zone" because nothing can live in it. And when there's toxic gas produced from a toxic algal bloom, not only does the oxygen disappear from the water, but the oxygen is masked by the toxic gas, so the terrestrial environment becomes a dead zone -- which is what killed the young man from the beginning.

The final page here describes how such extreme eutrophication like this kinda turns the world back to its primordial self -- where there was little oxygen and bacteria reigned supreme. Though we're a long way off, our massive amount of pollution is turning the world into a dead zone. So if you want to learn how to die from a toxic algal bloom, keep polluting the world and breathe deeply.

About the Author

MK Manoylov likes covering trees, the environment, microbes, and all things bugs. MK was the former opinion editor for The Red & Black newspaper and moved to Brooklyn to pursue science journalism. When not writing, you can find MK editing videos or drawing comics.

Discussion

1 Comment

evelina galova says:

Oh, this is good!!!!!

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