1. Florida

Five things to know about blue-green algae. (Yeah, it’s bad. And it’s getting worse.)

Blue-green algae blooms have been growing more frequent, both in Florida and elsewhere in the United States. Mississippi just closed all 21 of its beaches because of a bloom.
Water full of algae laps along the Sewell's Point shore on the St. Lucie River under an Ocean Boulevard bridge in Martin County. [Richard Graulich |The Palm Beach Post via the Associated Press (2016)]
Water full of algae laps along the Sewell's Point shore on the St. Lucie River under an Ocean Boulevard bridge in Martin County. [Richard Graulich |The Palm Beach Post via the Associated Press (2016)]
Published Jul. 9, 2019

Three years ago, a foul-smelling blue-green algae bloom so thick it looked like guacamole shut down the beaches of Martin County over the Fourth of July. Last year, blue-green algae blooms again popped up in Lake Okeechobee and the rivers connected to it. This year, there are small blue-green algae blooms appearing in the waters of Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

It could be worse. A blue-green algae bloom in the northern Gulf of Mexico spurred Mississippi authorities to close all 21 of their beaches over the weekend. In 2014, a blue-green algae bloom in Lake Erie meant 500,000 people were without a source of drinking water.

What is blue-green algae, why does it keep appearing and what does that mean for your health? Here are some answers.

An aerial photo shows blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart. [Greg Lovett | Palm Beach Post via the Associated Press (2016)]

1. It’s not really an algae. Unlike Red Tide algae, blue-green algae are actually microscopic cyanobacteria that contain chlorophyll similar to true algae. They reproduce rapidly, just like algae when it blooms. They are typically found at or near the surface of the water, just like algae blooms. And they are known to produce toxins, just like what scientists call “harmful algae blooms.” They are believed to represent the earliest known form of life on the earth.

A catfish appears on the shoreline in the algae-filled waters of North Toledo, Ohio. Long linked to animal deaths, high doses of the toxins in humans can cause liver damage and attack the nervous system. Blue-green algae blooms are becoming increasingly common around the United States, not just Florida. [Andy Morrison | the Blade via the Associated Press (2017)]

2. It can show up in either fresh or salt water. The blue-green algae bloom shutting down Mississippi’s beaches is growing in saltwater. The blue-green algae that has plagued both Lake Okeechobee and the Great Lakes thrives in freshwater. Ironically, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey last fall found that when the Lake Okeechobee algae traveled through the St. Lucie River to the Atlantic Ocean, the saltwater damaged its cell walls, releasing its toxins.

Boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart.[Greg Lovett | the Palm Beach Post via the Associated Press (2016)]

3. Those toxins are bad for humans. The Florida Department of Health says keep away from the algae blooms: “In high amounts, cyanobacteria toxins can affect the liver, nervous system and skin. Abdominal cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting may occur if untreated water is swallowed. Some people who are sensitive to the algae may develop a rash or respiratory irritation. If you come into contact with an algae bloom, wash with soap and water right away. If you experience an illness, please contact your healthcare provider.” There could be long-term effects of exposure, too. Earlier this year, University of Miami scientists found that dolphins that had come into contact with blue-green algae toxins displayed degenerative brain damage similar to Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Parkinson’s in humans.

A blue-green algae bloom in Provo Bay in Provo, Utah. [Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune via the Associated Press (2018)]

4. These blooms are not new, but their frequency is. The first freshwater blue-green algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee was reported in 1986, when it suddenly covered more than 100 square miles of the lake’s surface, leading to a New York Times headline that said, “Florida fears Lake Okeechobee is dying.” Lake Erie started experiencing regular toxic algae blooms in the 1990s, and they’ve continued to worsen. The 2016 bloom in Lake Okeechobee that spread to both of the state’s coasts was so bad that it became a political issue in the U.S. Senate campaign, and it was followed by another bloom last year, and the lake has already shown signs of a new bloom this year. In 2014, the Third National Climate Assessment predicted that climate change would lead to an increase in toxic algae blooms.

The Hillsborough Bay near Gibsonton, shown here in 1970 covered in thick, blue green algae similar to what many residents of southeast Florida have been seeing in recent years on Lake Okeechobee. [Courtesy of J.O.R. Johannson]

5. We can control the fuel for the blooms, if not what stops them. Nutrient pollution from agricultural and urban runoff, as well as from leaky septic tanks and sewer lines, causes the majority of freshwater cyanobacteria blooms, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Other conditions that contribute to blooms are stagnant water, resulting from a lack of natural flushing, and land clearing, which allows more polluted runoff to wash into waterways. Changing climate resulting in warmer ocean temperatures also is a factor for saltwater blooms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. If the conditions that spur cyanobacteria growth change — for instance the water cools off or the flow of nutrients stops — then the bloom can fade.


  1. ALLIE GOULDING  |   TimesGuests walk down Main Street with Cinderella's Castle in the background at Magic Kingdom on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at Disney World in Orlando.
  2. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
  3. Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes and Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, R- Bradenton, talk during a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, January 14, 2020, in Tallahassee.
  4. Debbie and her husband Michael, of Parkersburg, West Virginia, fish from the Dunedin Causeway Thursday. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission extended the period of catch and release for several species of fish along the west coast of Florida.
  5. Jonathan W. Connors, 32, told a deputy he was “high as f---” after he was pulled over in North Redington Beach, arrest reports state. He faces multiple charges, including his fourth DUI.
  6. It's not a bad time to be looking for a job. [Scott Keeler, Times]
  7. A rare rainbow snake was spotted recently in the Ocala National Forest.
  8. Harriett Tubman.
  9. A slurry of dead fish, the result of Red Tide, moved out of Clearwater Harbor on the north side of Sand Key Park during a 16-month-long algae bloom. So many fish were killed that the state is limiting anglers to catch-and-release when it comes to snook, redfish and sea trout.  [Times photo (2018) by Douglas R. Clifford]
  10. A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Florida is home to more wetlands than any other state except Alaska. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2008)]
  11. Wawa and Coppertail partnered to create a craft beer that will only be at the gas station's Florida locations.
  12. George Zimmerman, was acquitted of murder in the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, is suing Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg over tweets they posted to commemorate the teenager’s birthday.