Humans Driving Environmental Plagues, Stony Brook Scientist Says

The emergence of a new, toxic seaweed in local bays was one of the lowlights of continuing water quality issues on the East End in 2020. Stony Brook University professor Dr. Christopher Gobler gave his annual State of the Bays presentation this week, tracking the myriad environmental issues in the region.

While humans were ravaged in 2020 by a scourge of the natural world, the natural world on the East End continued to be ravaged by the scourge of humans.

In his annual “State of the Bays” presentation, recapping how Long Island’s bays, harbors and ponds fared in the prior year, Stony Brook University professor Dr. Christopher Gobler said that he is among the growing chorus of scientists who believe that the Earth has now entered a new epoch of geologic history — one defined by the activities of human beings becoming the dominant influence on the planet’s climate and the environment rather than simply the forces of nature.

In local bays, like in the world’s oceans, Dr. Gobler said in his Zoom presentation on Friday night, the identifying markers of this so-called Anthropocene era can be traced in four patterns of change: warming waters, rising levels of acidity, declining levels of dissolved oxygen, and the expansion of harmful algal blooms. The Stony Brook professor, whose laboratory has been at the fore of understanding destructive effects of humans on local waters, dubbed them the “Four Horsemen of the Anthropocene Apocalypse.” Taken as a whole, they create an unbalanced and toxic environment for many marine species like the iconic but fragile Peconic bay scallop.

Long Island’s waters are warming, becoming more acidic and less oxygenated, and are facing more frequent, more widespread and more toxic blooms of algae with almost every passing summer.

Suffolk County had the most blooms of blue-green algae — an especially toxic form of algae that blooms in freshwater and can kill animals and sicken humans who ingest water tainted with it — in New York State, by double the number of the second worst-hit county. The East End alone saw more than a dozen water bodies tainted with toxic blue-green algae blooms and at least four different species of other harmful algae blooms in marine waters.

The ocean waters off the Northeast have been on a 35-year warming trend, and in recent years the waters of Peconic Bay and its tributaries have seen a steep spike in temperatures.

“Temperatures that used to be rare, are now common in the Peconic Estuary,” Dr. Gobler said. “Just since 2003, we’re seeing a statistically significant increase in summer temperatures in Long Island Sound.”

One need not look further than a local seafood shop or their own dinner table to see real world effects of global changes on the East End, Dr. Gobler pointed out. Lobsters have effectively become extinct in Long island Sound. Likewise, blue mussels, a shellfish species once common on Long Island bay bottoms, have largely vanished. And bay scallops may well be headed down the same road, some scientists fear, after two successive years of almost complete die-offs of adult scallops, attributed largely to environmental stresses exaggerated by the upward shift in water temperatures that now regularly exceed what is understood to be lethal for scallops for longer periods than ever before.

And the danger to humans is growing, too. The blue-green algae blooms that have now spread to nearly every local freshwater body could be growing more and more toxic. Last summer, Dr. Gobler’s lab measured the highest levels of the toxin the algae naturally emits in Wainscott Pond that it has ever measured anywhere else on Long Island.

High temperatures are spurring denser blooms, and the flow of nitrogen into the waters are making the blooms more dangerous.

“The more nitrogen the organism has, the more toxic it can become,” Dr. Gobler said.

Because Long Island residents and lawmakers cannot do very much to change the effects of various components of the global climate, Dr. Gobler implored his audience that there must be a “fierce urgency of now” on Long Island to change the things that can be affected locally — namely accelerating the reduction of nitrogen pollution from home septic systems and introducing new strategies for tamping down the effects of harmful algae blooms.

There has been some movement in the right direction already, he said. In just the last few years, Suffolk County has gone from “worst to first,” in his estimation, in terms of its efforts at identifying and tackling nitrogen pollution. Last year, the county adopted the Suffolk County Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which has mapped how groundwater tainted with the nitrogen in human urine is flowing into local bays and ponds, spotlighting areas of high priority for upgrades to septics, and begun a concerted effort to replace 222,000 septic systems by the year 2050.

“No other county in the United States has as good a science-based plan as Suffolk,” he said.

Story Brook’s own Center for Clean Water Technology has introduced new filters that can be retrofitted onto homes to scrub nitrogen from wastewater outflows, as well as filter out pharmaceuticals.

Research has also shown that a new push for the commercial growth of kelp in local bays could prove a major benefit. Growing kelp, which absorbs nitrogen out of the water and balances some of the effects of acidification, has been shown to significantly reduce the densities and toxicity of algae in the same water bodies.

Using that same kelp, once harvested, has proven to be a superb organic fertilizer.

Efforts to tamp down algae blooms by introducing huge numbers of clams, which filter algae from water to feed, is also paying dividends in Shinnecock Bay, along with spurring an explosion in wild clam stocks.

“Things are afoot,” he said, “that are going to make our ecosystem more resilient.”