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COMMENT

growing problem, limiting resources for

GREG LOVETT/PALM BEACH POST VIA ZUMA WIRE


drinking, domestic use, food production and
recreation, as well as harming ecosystems.
The types and causes range from excess
nutrients feeding harmful algal blooms
and hypoxic ‘dead zones’, to bacterial, viral
and chemical contamination, to pollution
by personal-care products and pharma-
ceuticals. Cases of extreme impairment
often lead to disproportionate human and
ecosystem impacts. The costs can be huge.
More than US$4 billion are lost each year in
the United States alone as a result of harmful
algal blooms6.
Because the most severe water-quality
impacts are exacerbated by weather, cli-
mate plays a part. Runoff of nutrients from
farmland spikes after heavy rains; warm
temperatures accelerate the growth of bac-
teria and phytoplankton. As climate change
alters weather patterns and variability, con-
ditions conducive to severe water impair-
ment are likely to become more frequent.
Yet there has been scant study of how
climate will affect the occurrence of the
extreme events that relate to water quality
rather than quantity. We do not know how
to relate water-quality extremes, their causes,
their severity or their occurrence directly to
changes in climate. It is time to plug this
An algal bloom in Stuart, Florida, in June led to a state of emergency. knowledge gap.

Study role of climate COMPLEX CHAIN


Scientific understanding of extreme storms,
droughts and rising sea levels has improved

change in extreme markedly over the past decade. The impacts


of extreme weather events are integral to
discussions about climate-change mitiga-

threats to water quality tion and adaptation. The expected rise in


the frequency and severity of such events
is well established, and even individual epi-
sodes have been linked probabilistically to
Record-breaking harmful algal blooms and other climate change1.
severe impacts are becoming more frequent. We need Not so for water quality. Researchers
have explored trends in water quality with
to understand why, says Anna M. Michalak. climate, but the science of projecting and
attributing the occurrence of extremes is in
its infancy. This is despite evidence of strong

W
ith concerns about climate Both blooms were dominated by species of links with climate.
‘extremes’ growing 1, water is phyto­plankton that produce powerful toxins. Regional studies reveal how multiple fac-
often the focus — either too Such episodes can wreak havoc. During tors often conspire to create conditions ripe
much or too little. That is no coincidence: a previous bloom, in 2014, 500,000 people for dire water quality. For example, summer
climate and the hydrological cycle are tightly living near Lake Erie were ordered not to toxic blooms in Lake Taihu, the third-largest
coupled, and water is essential to ecosystems drink tap water, because it contained levels of freshwater lake in China, are more intense
and societies. But it is not just the quantity of hepatotoxins produced by the cyanobacte- after tropical cyclones, because the associ-
water that matters. So does its quality. rium Microcystis that were 2.5 times higher4 ated rains wash more nutrients into the lake,
Last year, Lake Erie, one of the US Great than the World Health Organization’s safe and the subsequent warmer temperatures
Lakes (which contain one-fifth of the world’s standard. The 2015 west-coast bloom of the and lower wind speeds further encourage the
fresh surface water), experienced its biggest diatom algae Pseudo-nitzschia shut down growth of blooms7. In 1999, a series of hur-
recorded harmful algal bloom. At its peak, fisheries. The Dungeness crab fishery, one of ricanes triggered severe hypoxia in Pamlico
the bloom spread some 200 kilometres the most valuable on the west coast, opened Sound, North Carolina (part of the United
across most of the lake2. Meanwhile, off the four months late owing to toxic levels of the States’ second-largest estuarine system) by
continent’s west coast, another record harm- neurotoxin domoic acid in the crabs. Brain delivering huge amounts of nutrients, organic
ful bloom stretched from Baja California in damage in sea lions has also been docu- carbon and fresh water to the estuary8. In
Mexico up to Alaska, probably triggered by mented as a result of exposure to this toxin5. North American regions as diverse as the
unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean3. Impaired water quality is a global and Great Lakes, the east coast’s Chesapeake Bay

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COMMENT

and the Gulf of Mexico, the severity of sum- meteorology, and thus nutrient loads. that is under way in anticipation of the
mer hypoxia has been linked to the effects of A clear understanding of the interplay next Intergovernmental Panel for Climate
weather on nutrient loading, water-column between climate and severe water-quality Change assessment.
structure and water circulation. Although impairment events is predicated on tracking A clear conceptual model would also
these examples all relate to harmful algal cause and effect across a cascading range of inform observational needs. Observations
blooms and hypoxia, other types of water pol- scales, from the globe to individual water- must capture the severity of extreme events,
lution are also affected by weather conditions, sheds and from decades to days. their impacts and key variables for assess-
which are altered by climate change. Third, observational evidence to under- ing the links to climate change. There will
pin a global view of this interplay is lacking. be trade-offs between specificity and cover-
THE CHALLENGE Unlike for weather variables such as temper- age. For example, whereas satellites might
Several factors explain the paucity of ature and precipitation, no global network monitor some water-quality parameters and
research. First, the role of climate is difficult tracks water quality. Existing monitoring impacts globally, other key indicators such
to pinpoint, because changes in water quality of water quality is sparse in space and time, as toxin concentrations can be tracked only
result from a delicate and complex interplay and site-specific. Satellite-based observa- in situ. The GEO (Group on Earth Observa-
of human activities across local, regional and tions could expand coverage, but there are tions) AquaWatch initiative would be a natu-
global scales. Complex chains of causative no widely accepted ral forum for exploring these challenges10.
steps must be understood. These start with approaches for “There is As the science improves, its implications
how climate change affects factors such as doing so. There is disagreement must inform broader global discussions
precipitation, temperatures and wind patterns even disagreement about which around water, such as the strategy for meeting
for given regions and watersheds. Next, we about which vari- variables best the United Nations’ Sustainable Development
must understand how these conditions alter ables best capture capture water Goal of ensuring ‘availability and sustainable
the flow of water, nutrients, contaminants and water quality. For quality.” management of water and sanitation for all’,
other constituents to water bodies. Finally, we example, is the one of 17 such goals adopted last year.
need to assess how these inputs, combined severity of a harmful algal bloom best rep- The scientific community has made
with meteorological conditions that influ- resented by its area, the total mass of phyto- remarkable progress in understanding the
ence freshwater and coastal systems directly, plankton it contains, the amount of toxins role of climate in the occurrence and inten-
will change water quality. We do not yet know that it produces or the ecosystem and human sity of droughts, storms and other extreme
how to put the pieces of this puzzle together. impacts that it engenders? Each brings a dif- events relating to water quantity. It is time
For example, the harmful algal blooms in ferent observational challenge. for a similar examination of extremes in
Lake Erie are driven by excess phosphorus water quality. ■
from changing farming and land-manage- NEXT STEPS
ment practices in the region, but a summer Researchers need to assess which meteor- Anna M. Michalak is a faculty member
2011 bloom shattered previous records. A ological conditions, in what combination, in the Department of Global Ecology,
forensic analysis9 revealed that a series of make extreme water-quality impairments Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford,
intense rainstorms led to record springtime most likely. In doing so, they must also con- California, USA.
discharge from rivers, which flooded the lake sider land use, land management, popula- e-mail: michalak@stanford.edu
with a record amount of nutrients flushed tion distributions and other regional factors
1. IPCC. Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and
from fields. Warmer-than-average summer that compound the effects of weather. An Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation.
temperatures and low winds then accelerated initiative such as Future Earth, which pro- A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of
the growth of buoyant Microcystis cyanobac- vides a research platform for global sustain- the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
(Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).
teria. Unusually weak water circulation dur- ability science, would be a good umbrella 2. Stumpf, R. & Wynne, T. Experimental Lake Erie
ing the summer kept nutrients in the lake for for developing and integrating such knowl- Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin Bulletin 27 (NOAA,
longer, further feeding the bloom. How cli- edge globally. 2015).
3. Di Liberto, T. ‘This summer’s West Coast algal
mate change influences the occurrence of all The first step should be a retrospective bloom was unusual. What would usual look like?’
these factors, individually and together, needs analysis of past extreme events, to under- ClimateWatch Magazine (30 September 2015).
to be elucidated to predict the likelihood of stand commonalities and differences across 4. Wilson, E. K. Chem. Eng. News 92, 9 (2014).
5. Cook, P. F. et al. Science 350, 1545–1547 (2015).
similar events happening more frequently in types of systems and impacts. The resulting 6. Kudela, R. M. et al. Harmful Algal Blooms. A
the future. conceptual model will differ depending on Scientific Summary for Policy Makers (IOC/
Second, water-quality and climate the type of problem — hypoxic dead zones UNESCO, 2015).
scientists work in disciplinary silos, and and microbial outbreaks in recreational 7. Zhu, M. et al. Harmful Algae 39, 310–321 (2014).
8. Paerl, H. W. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 98,
each tends to have a different scale of focus. waters will not link to climate in the same 5655–5660 (2001).
Whereas much of climate science is global ways. The water-quality and climate research 9. Michalak, A. M. et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA
or concerned with large regions, most communities will have to work together to 110, 6448–6452 (2013).
10. Group on Earth Observations/AquaWatch.
hydrologists and limnologists study pro- identify key mechanisms and feedbacks. AquaWatch 2016 Work Plan and Structure (2016);
cesses in individual streams, lakes, water- Understanding meteorological drivers available at http://go.nature.com/29ye4ul
sheds or estuaries. Similarly, water-quality would allow researchers to assess whether
impacts have been treated mostly as local climate models can accurately represent the
or regional issues, resulting from human occurrence of key specific conditions (such CORRECTION
activities in a particular basin or watershed. as high precipitation or warm temperatures), The Comment ‘No wild east’ (D. Sipp
Little attention has been given to the local as well as their joint or sequential occurrence and D. Pei Nature 534, 465–467; 2016)
impacts of human action at global scales. (such as high precipitation followed by low incorrectly cited (in ref. 4) and referred to
For example, strategies for preventing winds and high temperatures). This could the 2001 Chinese national guidelines on
harmful blooms and hypoxia often rightly be explored, for example, in the context of assisted reproduction when discussing
focus on limiting nutrient loads through the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project the implantation of modified human
land management, but should also con- Phase 6 (CMIP6), and effort to compare cli- embryos for reproductive purposes.
sider how a shifting climate will alter local mate projections under different scenarios

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