Updated May 21, 2015
Chris Gobler has always had an appreciation for the natural environment and a fervent fascination with science, especially biology. Some years ago after hearing a Long Island bayman’s firsthand account of the devastating impact that Brown Tide had on the regional clam fishery and, subsequently, the livelihood of local baymen, Chris was inspired to pursue both a M.S. and a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University on Long Island studying harmful algal blooms.
Today, Dr. Gobler is a professor and principal investigator at the Gobler Lab at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, where he and his colleagues are investigating phytoplankton -- single-celled marine plants at the base of aquatic food webs -- and are particularly focused on harmful algal blooms (HABs). A variety of research methods (field, laboratory, experimental, molecular) are being used in a variety of ecosystems like estuaries, lakes and coastal environments to gain a better understanding of the HABs – which are caused by multiple classes of algae.
The lab’s research has expanded to the impact of climate change on the coastal ocean ecosystem. Much of this research is part of Dr. Gobler’s Stony Brook - Long Island Coastal Conservation & Research Alliance (LICCRA for short).
A native Long Islander, Dr. Gobler is working with environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy, Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Group for the East End and Citizens Campaign for the Environment to promote greater awareness of the causes of harmful algal blooms and the threat they pose to human health and local ecology.
I recently interviewed Dr. Gobler (for the second time; first time was back in 2013 ) and we discussed ocean acidification, the connection between climate change and toxic algae blooms and what he thinks of our new water footprint calculator and what surprised him about his personal water footprint.
Summer is approaching. And with summer comes harmful algal blooms. What should people know about these algal blooms, where are they showing up and what can people do about it?
There are many kinds of algal blooms and the effect of these algal blooms on ecosystems is determined by the types of algae that comprise the event. The first type of algal bloom can be considered beneficial. Algae or phytoplankton are the base of aquatic food webs and in many cases their growth provides the energy to support fisheries. The dark side of algae are ‘harmful algal blooms’ or HABs which can also be known as brown, green, red, and rust tides and can either harm ecosystems or harm humans due to their synthesis of toxins. These events have been most common is the parts of bays, harbors, estuaries, and even lakes where the water body is enclosed and does not exchange readily with open waters. The second ingredient in these events is excessive nitrogen and sometimes phosphorus delivery from land to sea usually stemming from wastewater or fertilizers. At moderate levels these ‘nutrients’ typically support the good algae that support fisheries, but when delivered at high rates in those regions where the water movement is sluggish, they can frequently generate HABs. It is for this reason, plans have been, and need to be, made to limit and reduce the delivery of nutrients to vulnerable water bodies. This can be done at the household level by, say, reducing or eliminating the use of fertilizer on lawns and can be done at the municipal or governmental level by developing plans to remove nutrients from wastewater or regulating fertilizer use by farms.
What role does climate change play in these blooms?
Climate change can also play a significant role in HABs. In some cases, higher temperatures can make these events more intense. This has been well-documented for HABs formed by blue green algae which is the type of algae that is most likely to come to dominance when freshwater bodies like lakes and reservoirs with high nutrient levels heat up in summer. These blue green algae blooms ‘like it hot’ and hence may become more common and intense with global warming. We have also seen that higher temperatures can allow once tropical or lower latitude algae to expand their geographic range into higher latitude regions as they warm up and become more hospitable to these tropical algae. The other side of climate change and HABs is CO2. Remember, these algae are photosynthetic meaning they use CO2 as their source of carbon to grow and hence more CO2 can benefit some algae. Humanity just marked the milestone of passing the 400 parts per million mark with regard to levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and our surface oceans. Recently, we’ve also learned that the decay of algal blooms can also enrich CO2 levels in coastal ocean and evidence is now emerging that some types of HABs are able to grow more rapidly and, in some cases, become more toxic when CO2 levels are higher. So, as our climate changes, we may see more of these HABs.
Tell us a little about the latest research you are involved in?
My research team continues to study HABs and climate change and how those factors combine and interact to effect aquatic fisheries and food webs. While high levels of CO2 can increase the growth of some HABs, high CO2 can be directly detrimental to marine life as it reduces the pH of oceans through the process known as ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is of great concern because the high levels of CO2 projected for later this century is expected to alter ocean chemistry in such a way that animals that make their hard parts from calcium carbonate such as shellfish and coral reefs will have trouble growing and even surviving under such conditions. What we have discovered recently is that the excessive delivery of nutrients from land to sea and the subsequent algal blooms can ultimately create acidification far worse than is projected for the open oceans of the future. It’s a multi-step process but we are trying to understand how the kind of coastal, ocean acidification that is occurring today is altering fisheries and ecosystems. Unlike future ocean acidification, this acidification changes on multi-time scales. It is most intense during summer and fall and is particularly intense at night, especially in shallow waters. Because this acidification usually happens in the same places and times as low oxygen conditions, we believe they combine to be highly problematic for marine life.
As a scientist, what have you observed from the drought that is now affecting tens of millions of Americans? What does the drought mean from a water quality perspective?
The first and foremost concern is for peoples ability to get a clean and reliable source of drinking water and that will become more and more difficult this century as climate change progresses. Given the most intense US drought is occurring in our nation’s top agriculture region, California’s Central Valley, there is a legitimate food safety and supply concern as well. I think it is important that steps are taken to not only deal with the current drought, but to prepare for these conditions to continue, and likely worsen, in the future. Interestingly, there is an algal bloom connection here as well. Extreme droughts create conditions especially ripe for blue green algae bloom development because initial rains will wash more nutrients into bodies of water and the drought will warm the water to levels that fuel more blue-green algae growth. This was seen recently in Lake Chabot, a man-made lake in Alameda County, CA, which experienced a blue green algae bloom that caused three dog deaths. Even more concerning is that this lake actually serves as an emergency, backup drinking water source in the region. The trend of rain followed by drought is actually prevalent in the Northeast US as well. The total amount of rainfall we experience in the region has not changed, but the amount delivered all at once has increased by 80% since the 20th century, meaning that even on the East Coast, we could be more vulnerable to more algal blooms. In fact, this happened last fall in NY. A record was set when 16 inches of rain fell on August 12th 2014 on Long Island. This flushed nutrient-rich water into Great South Bay and stimulated an algal bloom and eventually a harmful brown tide that persisted through the fall and negatively affected clam populations there.
You took our new and improved water footprint calculator. What was your household footprint? What surprised you about your household water footprint?
On the one hand, it was below average for me at 1,300 gallons per day but for my family of five, a dog, and two cats, we hit 6,800 gallons per day! I’ll need to remind my teenage girls to take shorter showers! Seriously though, I found the virtual water use component to be the most informative aspect as it’s the angle one doesn’t typically think of. When you pause to think about it, it’s obvious that a lot of water goes into the production of our food, but for my family, it was the biggest contributor. We’re a ‘low meat’ family, so clearly that number could be even higher. In playing around with the calculator, it seemed like meat consumption played a huge role in virtual water use which, again, makes sense given the acreage and water needed to raise the crops these animals need to eat. Consideration of these facts will certainly be an important part of schemes to adapt to future conditions of more drought in the West.
In 2013, I interviewed Dr. Gobler in his office at the Southampton campus of Stony Brook University where he teaches. We discussed threats to Long Island’s drinking water supply, harmful algal blooms like brown tide and his path as a scientist and professor.
Read excerpts of our 2013 conversation (published on Ecocentric on April 18, 2013 ) below or listen to the 37-minute interview by clicking on the audio player (above right) or by downloading this podcast episode.
Why is it important for people everywhere to know the source of their drinking water supply?
I think the main reason is so that they know that what they do on land will affect their drinking water and then ultimately their coastal waters as well. Some people don’t know where their drinking water is coming from and they may not recognize that, for example, how their fertilizing the lawn affects the nitrogen in the groundwater, or the functioning of their cesspool affects the nitrogen in the groundwater, or that anything that they put down their toilet eventually is going to end up potentially in someone’s drinking water or in our coastal waters. All of Long Island is a watershed, so anytime water hits anywhere on the land of Long Island from Montauk to Brooklyn, eventually that water is going to make its way to our coastal waters. It may just run off the surface and go in but more commonly it seeps into the ground and then seeps out. So anything that’s happening on the land effects what happens in the sea and anything that happens on the land is going to get into the groundwater (which) is primarily used for drinking.
What did you want to be when you were growing up and how did you get started in your field of work?
You know, I wasn’t really sure even like going into college. I did always have a fascination with science and specifically with biology. I majored in biology. And I think for me, the thing that pushed me to where I am today (are) actually the exact issues we are talking about. I remember being in high school and hearing about the first brown tides and how that was affecting coastal ecosystems and fishermen. I had worked for an environmental organization and had a bayman come in and speak to us. And in fact that was probably a life-changing event because the individual came in…I think he was the head of the Brookhaven Baymen’s Association. It’s one thing to read it in Newsday, but here’s a bayman essentially pouring out his life story just saying how he’s been devastated because he used to harvest clams for a living…that’s how he paid the bills…that’s how he fed his family. And there were no more clams because of this brown tide…we don’t know what’s causing it. And that was really my inspiration. And so once I saw that I said wow here’s an opportunity to do research on something that could actually have a benefit, not just for the ecosystem, but for the masses… for citizens. And that inspired me to…after I got my degree in biology, to then go to Stony Brook University and get a degree, both a Masters and Ph.D., in studying brown tide for graduate school.