UVM researcher studies cold-water cyanobacterial blooms

Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 3:28 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, typically plagues Burlington beaches and other waterways during hot summer months, but a new study shows it could be a year-round issue.

“We’re seeing that blooms are occurring in waters that have temperatures less than say, 15 degrees Celsius,” said Katelynn Warner, a PhD candidate at the University of Vermont who joined researchers from the Global Lakes Ecological Observatory Network, or GLEON.

Warner says they used meta-analysis to reach this conclusion, taking into account personal observations, peer-reviewed research papers, and community science apps to track blooms. While they used community-collected data from Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi, she says the study has worldwide implications.

“Essentially, they pulled together the map and found that a bunch of different blooms are happening in colder waters across the globe. That’s just probably touching the surface of what’s actually there, but it’s most likely being under-studied and under-reported,” she said.

With most research occurring during warmer months in waters above 25 degrees Celsius, or 77 degrees Fahrenheit, the study suggests that scientists might have missed periods where cyanobacteria are in bloom, possibly even under ice.

“I think what that means for researchers studying lakes and lake managers alike is that we need to start extending that period that we’re sampling so we can start to encapsulate when blooms could be forming, or different mechanisms that could be driving bloom formations,” Warner said.

But is this proof of a worsening problem or have the blooms been occurring in cold waters all along? “That, I think, is the key question. I think the big question that comes from this paper that we studied -- or a big importance from this paper -- is that there is this knowledge gap,” Warner said. A knowledge gap, she suggests, that would be addressed by broadening sampling. “Cyanobacteria are really fascinating creatures and they have so many adaptations and mechanisms that allow them to survive in maybe sub-optimal conditions. And we really have to take more of a holistic approach when thinking about them as organisms and why they proliferate into these larger blooms.”

The study, which was published in the journal Limnology and Oceanology Letters, looked at over 40 lakes across the globe.

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