A fascinating conclusion to an environmental mystery

This is the town of Kivalina, Alaska. Last fall, when the ocean water that almost surrounds the town started turning a gooey orange, people (understandably) got a bit freaked out.

After ruling out the scarier options—i.e.,chemical pollution and toxic algae—scientists eventually pinned the orange tide on the presence of a plant fungus. And they turned up some good news: The fungus wasn't dangerous to people or ocean life.

Now, months later, researchers have identified what, exactly, the fungus is and where it was coming from. There's a fascinating detective story here, because, as Jennifer Frazer points out on Scientific American's Artful Amoeba blog, it's rather surprising that there was a fungal epidemic big enough to turn a whole port orange and nobody noticed it on the plants.

[But] Perhaps someone did.

Last October, David Wartinbee, a professor of aquatic biology at Kenai Peninsula College in Alaska’s south-central Kenai Peninsula, emailed me to say he’d seen something strange, and wondered if it might be the same thing that hit Kivalina. Though his neck of the woods is over 600 miles southeast from Kivalina as the snow goose flies, it’s not inconceivable they could be one in the same in a place so far north.

In early September, Wartinbee traveled 70 miles west to a place called the Twin Lakes by float plane (reputedly the SUV of Alaska). He saw an orange film on the water, and the spruce needles on nearby trees were clearly poxed with something.

You can read the rest of this story (and see Wartinbee's photos!) at The Artful Amoeba.

Image: ArticLandscape, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from uscgpress's photostream



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