LOOK: This Seattle Inlet’s Bizarre Algae Situation Can Be Seen From Space

by Lauren Boisvert

In Hood Canal, west of Seattle, a huge algae bloom has cropped up. The bloom is made up of microscopic organisms called coccolithophores, and, according to NASA, are a regular sight in Hood Canal around this time. The plant-like organisms turn the water a teal color, and it’s such a bright blue that it can be seen from space.

“This is a result of their chalky calcium carbonate plates (coccoliths) that reflect light,” Michael Carlowicz, of NASA’s Earth Observatory site, wrote in an article. He wrote that the coccolithophores turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen, and in turn, become food for the zooplankton and shellfish that live in the canal waters. Additionally, “coccolithophores and other phytoplankton also play an important, but not fully understood, role in the global carbon cycle,” wrote Carlowicz, “taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and eventually sinking it to the bottom of the ocean.”

(Image Credit: NASA Operational Land Imager)

So, these little algae aren’t as detrimental as they might seem to the untrained eye. They provide food for other organisms and help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s all part of the natural ecosystem in Hood Canal.

According to Carlowicz, sometimes the temperatures in Hood Canal don’t reach the right levels to create the coccolithophore bloom. Apparently, last year, teams with the University of Washington’s Sea Grant weren’t able to see a bloom like this year’s, even though they diligently scanned the waters. Sometimes, the Hood Canal waters don’t mix well enough to get one consistent temperature reading. Occasionally, upper layers and deeper layers have contrasting temperatures and salinity.

Why Seattle’s Algae Situation Isn’t as Bad as it Seems

So, your canal is a bright teal color. You look at that and think, “oh my God, my canal is diseased.” Not so in Seattle. As briefly mentioned above, coccolithophores are actually helpful for the Hood Canal ecosystem.

“E. huxleyi [a species of coccolithophore] has a host of biotechnology uses because of its anti-parasitic, anti-tumor, antibiotic, and anti-fungal properties,” said Teri King, marine water quality specialist with Washington Sea Grant. “This species is not toxic, and does not harm fish, shellfish, or hinder any human recreation.”

Emiliania huxleyi is one of the most common species of coccolithophore on the planet. It’s also the species that is inhabiting Hood Canal this year. King went on to explain that this year’s bloom occurred much later than previous blooms. “The later bloom this year might be an artifact from the spring conditions,” she said. “We had an incredibly wet, cold spring and, biologically, things are delayed. For example, our clams are just spawning now when we normally see them spawn in May and June.”

So, there are many factors that come into play to create these incredible algae blooms. Water temperature, salinity, and conditions during the spring season all come together to create this amazing sight. Although it looks like there’s something wrong in Hood Canal, it’s just the coccolithophores hanging out for the late summer season.