Sources of Plankton Blooms

For many years it was generally thought that planktonic algae blooms involved a few resting stages germinating from the bottom or a few cells hanging on from some previous time in the water column encountering adequate nutrients under sufficient light, resulting in enough growth to discolor the water and be called a “bloom” (Note: there is no technical definition of a bloom; it is in the eye of the beholder, although there is general agreement that there should be reduced clarity and increased color involved). This mode of bloom formation is certainly possible and does occur, but for the harmful algal blooms currently getting so much media attention, there are two other modes of bloom formation that seem to be dominant.

One mode is metalimnetic accumulation, which means that algae accumulate in the boundary layer between upper, well-lit, warmer waters (the epilimnion) and lower, darker, colder waters (the hypolimnion). This can only happen where the lake is deep enough to develop a thermal gradient, usually more than 20 feet in New England, but thermal stratification can develop in shallower lakes under the right circumstances. Algae in this zone get enough light from above and enough nutrients from below to grow into a dense layer which may be disrupted by wind or may synchronously rise in response to lower light availability or changes in temperature that signal breakdown of thermal stratification. These blooms are most often evident in late summer or early fall, but can be moved into upper waters by summer storms. Several types of golden algae that produce taste and odor use this mode of growth, and water supplies with intakes in this boundary layer have to deal with them. Several blue-green algae known for toxicity also utilize this mode of growth and are a threat to both human health and lake ecology.

The other mode involves growth at the sediment-water interface, much like algae mats, with an eventual rise in the water column, again like the mats. But we think of these algae as planktonic forms, and never really considered their origin. It appears that these algae, mostly blue-greens and often potentially toxic forms, gain most nutrients from decay or other releases from sediment, accumulate excess amounts in cells, grow to full “maturity” on the sediment, then produce gas pockets in cells and rise over just a few days to form a ready-made bloom at the surface.

These bottom-formed blooms are particularly problematic in lakes known for being “clean” for many decades. The inputs from the watershed over many years were assimilated into the bottom sediments and at some point the balance tipped, such that the accumulated nutrients, especially phosphorus, became available for uptake at the sediment-water interface. It appears that this is related to oxygen loss in the surficial sediment, largely a function of organic build up. The water column may still have low nutrient levels, but the rising blue-greens already have enough extra nutrients to survive for days to a few weeks, and the resulting blooms seems to come out of nowhere to impair lake use and threaten ecological functions. Worse yet, this appears to bring nutrients into surface waters, allowing follow on blooms when the initial algae die off. This mode of bloom formation is both a harbinger of eutrophication and a vector of it.

Planktothix sp., a metalimnetic bloom former

Dolichospermum lemmermannii, a bottom bloom former