Deadly cyanobacteria bloom takes over Lake Atitlán, Guatemala (NASA photo)


Guatemala's Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes and Maya settlements, has been taken over by a massive bloom of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). I'll be traveling to a K'iche' Maya village not far from this place in a couple of weeks. The image comes from the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA's Terra satellite.

It's no shock to realize that decades of environmental damage have led to this, but it is still very weird to see an image that shows this huge, seemingly pristine body of water transformed into a big pool of slime, with growing "dead zones" where fish and other critters can no longer survive. Guatemala is facing a widespread hunger crisis already -- so, for the at-risk human populations around the lake who live off a subsistence farmer/fisher lifestyle, this means more hunger, more death.

Cyanobacteria are a serious problem both because they are toxic to humans and other animals and because they create dead zones. As the bacteria multiply, they form a thick mat that blocks sunlight. Dense blooms can also consume all of the oxygen in the water, leaving a dead zone where other plants and animals cannot survive. The density of the bloom also affects the cyanobacteria. Since only the top layer of the bloom receives life-sustaining light, the bacteria in the rest of the bloom die and decay, releasing toxins into the water. These highly toxic harmful algal blooms cause illness in people and other animals.
The Guatemalan government says it will cost 32 million dollars Cost estimates to "clean up the lake, install water treatment plants, and implement other measures to limit the flow of pollution into the lake to prevent future outbreaks" are around 350 million dollars, according to a source quoted in TIME. Knowing how things work in the country, all I can say is -- don't hold your breath on that one. This is terrible, tragic news.

Harmful Bloom in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala (NASA)

Update: Kara Andrade of Hablaguate points us to an article related to this item, in TIME. There has also been some reporting in PrensaLibre, El Periodico (Spanish language publications in Guatemala) and The Revue . Snip from TIME piece:

With the future of one of its major tourist attractions in question, the Guatemalan government has announced an ambitious multi-part plan to cut sources of phosphorous. It calls for the construction of 15 sewage-treatment plants, a government-led conversion to organic farming for 80% of farmers in the lake's watershed during the next three years, and for educating residents and tourists about the environment. The cost: about $350 million, a huge expenditure for an impoverished country. "The problem has been accumulating for years but Guatemala has other expensive problems and, apparently, this was not a priority," says Margaret Dix, a Universidad Del Valle scientist who has studied the lake since 1976. "It needs money, input and a commitment. ... I think it can be restored to a large extent in four or five years. But it will never be like it was 100 years ago."


  1. That’s awful.

    I was at Lago de Atitlan 8 years ago, and it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen – and yes, seemingly pristine.

  2. looks like a good opportunity for innovation. Blue green algae can be converted into fuel. Algae also produces oxygen more than rain forests do. So there are always pros and cons. I guess “Save the Algae Forests” isn’t a very attractive cause.

    1. Eutrophication doesn’t have a happy ending.
      “Under eutrophic conditions, dissolved oxygen greatly increases during the day, but is greatly reduced after dark by the respiring algae and by microorganisms that feed on the increasing mass of dead algae. When dissolved oxygen levels decline to hypoxic levels, fish and other marine animals suffocate. As a result, creatures such as fish, shrimp, and especially immobile bottom dwellers die off.[15] In extreme cases, anaerobic conditions ensure, promoting growth of bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum that produces toxins deadly to birds and mammals. Zones where this occurs are known as dead zones.”

      While there are start-up technologies trying to produce fuel from algal sources, they’re doing it in vitro. There’s no method for sucking it out of a lake in order to do so.
      Not sure I see a “pro” here.

  3. I have been to this lake and others in the region. At ground level they look like an emerald green sea. It is mostly due to poor environmental practices of waste management. The runoff from local villages and waste sites cause trash and waste to build up on the shores. The additional issue is that national and region agencies and organizations have been sold a bill of goods on several projects that were only window dressing and cash for some other person or organization, no real solution. It has to start with waste handling and management, then go from there.

  4. “Dense blooms can also consume all of the oxygen in the water, leaving a dead zone where other plants and animals cannot survive.”

    Maybe I’m mistaken, but doesn’t the algae actually _produce_ oxygen instead of consume it?

  5. My fiancee lived in Santiago Atitlán for summer 2006 as she was doing studies for her master’s thesis on the traditional dress. Its that town just east of the San Pedro Volcano, she had a wonderful view of it from her room with her host family. This sucks, hopefully someone with the resources could step-up to help out, but, I agree, they’ll have to be holding their breath for a while on that one.

  6. If I am not mistaken, lake Atitlan was already blighted sometime back when the environmental movement was still swaddling in its crib when TWA made a deal with the Guatemalan government to stock the lake with big mouth bass in order to attract American sportsman. The government was eager to attract tourist dollars and TWA was the first airline to offer flights there and hoped to reap major profits. This was well before the idea of an invasive species existed and so the big mouth bass pretty much wiped out all indigenous aquatic life in lake Atitlan because nothing could compete with a predator against which no natural defense existed.
    I could be wrong about this but this is what I was told by a native Guatemalan when I was in Panajachel. Seems to me that this tragedy may be a chance to it the reset button and restock the lake with native species. Of course, Xeni is right that there is practically no way the Government in Guatemala can afford to foot the bill for such a program but there is so much USAid money being dropped into road development in that area that perhaps they will be enticed into funding such a program.
    Not gonna hold my breath either though…

  7. It’s not algae. It’s just called blue-green algae because it looks that way. Algae would be a different to treat. Cyanobacteria is a much different organism, one that’s more difficult to treat. This is a particularly rare type of the bacteria. TIME did a story explaining how it feeds off the phosphorous —,8599,1942501,00.html
    Cost is more like $350 million according to the government. The Guatemala Times source is wrong. that’s just the first step.

  8. We have an unique solution to the problem of Cyanobacteria.
    We use a steady and controlled bloom of Diatom Algae to bioremedy polluted lakes.

    The advantage of Diatoms is that they are consumed by Zooplankton and these by Fish, so fish population will go up in the lake.

    We cause the bloom of Diatoms using our patented nano micro nutrient powder.

    The problem with Cyanobacteria is that they are not consumed by many species of fish, so they accumulate and crash. They are not a problem as long as they are alive but when they crash the Dissolved Oxygen level drops and this causes problems. They keep dying and hence accumulate in the lake.

    In nature Diatoms are the preferred food for fish, these are used in Aquaculture to provide live food for fish. Our solution enables creation of small regulated diatom blooms whenever required, this keeps uncontrolled blooms of other algae at bay.

    best regards


  9. @ Toad @ bhaskarmv.
    I am a chemical engineer living in Santiago Atilan on the shore of the lake.
    To suggest that the tragedy occurring here is an opportunity is appalling. This is not an algae farm nor a way to solve global warming. This is a source of drinking water that contains carcinogens, teratogen, hepatic disease etc. I worked for the California Water Resources Control Board for many years.
    While algae has its benefits, they do not occur here.
    bhaskarmy – Look elsewhere to promote your product. Biological fixes usually backfire.
    The phenomena of eutrofication is common in the USA. This case is particularly harmful because of use of sodium triphosphate soaps, NPK commercial fertilizers, organo-phosphate pesticides, untreated human waste, de-hulling operations at coffee processing plants, and stormwater runoff which washes everything on the roofs, streets and sidewalks into the lake.
    It is better to be informed before commenting as misinformation is counterproductive.
    A plant is being built in Panajachel, the largest village and Santiago has surveyed its shoreline to eliminate direct discharges of human excrement.
    Algae produces oxygen during the day and depresses it at night. Nursing areas for fish are most affected and shellfish poisoning occurs in the freshwater crab here.

  10. Like many things in Guatemala, lake Atitlan has been left unattended and is the latest victim of the growing and endemic disrespect in that country. Obviously, there is much more to preserving a lake than trumpeting to anyone that will listen that lake Atitlan, as per Aldeous Huxley, is “the most beautiful lake in the world” as INGUAT (Guatemalan Tourism Board) would like everyone to know. The same institution that spent a reported $60 000 to lobby the lake’s inclusion as one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Understandably, It did not make it. That $60k might have been better spent to nurture the veracity of Aldeous Huxley’s once upon a time resounding quote.
    Strangely, or not so strangely, whatever is authentic and beautiful in Guatemala ultimately gets destroyed, don’t ask me why, thats just the way it is. A love affair with Guatemala is a painful adventure – sooner or later, the beauty that has seduced no end, just shrivels up or is made to dissapear. Lakes, rivers, vernacular architecture, traditions and whatever else. The invaluable cultural and natural mosaic that this country was once made of has suffered the painful consequences of un-love and disrespect. Who is to blame? Quite a collection of characters. Certainly many foreign and local NGO’s, those that for years have lobbied their conservation agenda’s as if there was no tomorrow and whose now proven incapacity has betrayed the trust of their benefactors and the world at large. Then we have governmental conservation agencies who do not seem to understand the nature of their mission beyond the status of their name cards, and so on. A story that would be fit for a book rather than for just a short comment. Who is next to bite the dust? It looks like the Mirador Basin could be a strong candidate if it is not declared and preserved as a wilderness area asap.

    Sure, we can all have a good time in Guatemala on an individual basis, but, big picture, it is a country that has failed to love itself and nurture its geese se with the golden eggs. Now it is suffering the ills of its disrespect.

    To all those who over the years have fallen in love and have been profoundly moved by lake Atitlan, My heartfelt condoleances. Allow me to include myself in that group for having been spellbound by its magic in 1978, a crystal clear memory i will never fail to nurture. UTZ!

  11. The Guatemala Times article citing the cost estimate at approximate US $32 million is correct: source Guatemalan Government. Read local media Prensa Libre, El Periodico, La Hora, Siglo XXI, etc.
    IPS story corroborates the data:
    EFE story corrobporates the data: El rescate del lago Atitlán necesita una inversión de 37,39 millones de dólares
    Guatemala, 4 nov (EFE).-

    We never stated that US $ 32 million is enough to solve the problem.
    Check the facts before you say that The Guatemala Times source is wrong.

    About the “Time” piece, ask the author where he got the US $ 320 million number.

  12. I agree to you 100%!

    We tend to see things like cyanobacteria as THE problem, it is NOT. They are part of a functioning eco system and as such do mostly good.

    The problem is when we, the human beings starts to dump stuff into the water that these organisms need to develop. This kind of blooms can occur naturally (not in this case) and it is one of nature’s ways to offset nutrient unbalance. So the fact is that the cyanobacteria are helping us clean the lake they are NOT contributing to the pollution.

    To introduce and feed diatoms to offset the cyanobacteria is probably as stupid as introducing big mouth bass to this ecosystem to please some tourists (that newer came).

    If we stop dumping our own crap into the lake it will fix itself. It will just take some time and there is a point where algae, cyanobacteria, etc. will start to feed them self’s (point of no return) and this recovery time will be really long.

    I have also done some lab experiment with the Cyanobacteria (Lyngbya hieronymusii) from the lake and it is actually pretty sensitive to high values of Phosphor and Nitrogen and it is likely that the present cyanobacteria will be replaced with another, for instance Microcystis sp if we don’t stop the pollution. This would take us closer to the “point of no return” and it would be extremely costly both ecologically and economically.

    Bosse Persson
    The Guatemala Times

    PS I would like to correct you on one item. There is plenty of other species of cyanobacteria, algae and diatoms in the lake and they are part of a functioning ecosystem.

  13. well lets see what happens now that the Guatemalan Gov. just granted 16 million in aid for drilling wells. i hope this is the start of rebuilding the water source there.

  14. Recently the situation has not improved at the Lake. Tropical storm Agatha (29 of May 2010) has cost many lives in the villages around the lake and brought down an immense amount of mud from the mountains which feeds the algae, it contains lots of phosphorous and bio materials. We will have to see how this will influence the growth of the algae in the coming months. I am writing this as i just returned while having been away from the lake for months the colour of the water looks “blue-green” like it normally does not do, whether it is the weather or my imagination, no idea. A really useful resource to check on is (Read the “Atitlan Health” article) where someone actually came up with a “solution” to tackle the problem of the growing algae causing the bacteria.

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