John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A mysterious (and disgusting) change in the appearance of the harbor water has locals scratching their heads.
"Looks like the milk in the bottom of my bowl after I eat Lucky Charms," tweets ABC's Joce Sterman, regarding the sudden transformation of the Baltimore Harbor.
Earlier today, the color of the basin shifted from its normal brackish brown-green to a light, artificial-looking aquamarine more often seen in fake ponds at mini-golf courses. Dead fish are floating on the surface of the water, which has acquired a new smell that one journo describes as "odd." So what's going on – did Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. empty its friers into the harbor?
The early speculation was that something nasty had been dumped into the water, perhaps upstream in Jones Falls, which runs from a nearby lake through the city to expel itself in the harbor. It wouldn't be the first time this tributary made the news for pollution. In 2004, the Baltimore City Paper noted that it had problems with "bacteria, copper, lead, nutrients, sediments and PCBs," and as recently as May a grease clog in an undergrond pipe diverted 21,000 gallons of sewage into the stream.
The authorities are poking around the harbor to determine what's behind the foul conversion. But one environmental group has put out a hypothesis that has nothing to do with human malfeasance. Healthy Harbor, which is working to make Baltimore's water safe for swimming and fishing by 2020, writes on Facebook:
The Jones Falls is currently experiencing a thermal inversion event. Basically, differences in water temperatures have caused the water at the bottom of the Jones Falls to switch places with the water at the top. This pulls sulfur bacteria up to the surface, which gives the water its milky-green color and produces the sulfur smell. Unfortunately, the water on the bottom of the Harbor also has very low dissolved oxygen, which is what's killing the fish.
Gaseous, rotting fish: just one more thing for Baltimoreans to deal with in their current, miserable hot weather, with a heat index today possibly reaching 105 degrees.
Dead fish and milky water flowing from Jones Falls into Inner Harbor. State, city investigating. pic.twitter.com/Pb1P1qMYze— TBWheeler (@TBWheeler) July 18, 2013
Dead fish floating at mouth of Jones Falls in Inner Harbor. Photos courtesy Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper. pic.twitter.com/ijbwhGAqPA— TBWheeler (@TBWheeler) July 18, 2013
Murky water and dead fish in the Jones Falls may be linked to thermal water conditions. HAZMAT team present. pic.twitter.com/u4xbaQIIsY— HealthyHarbor (@HealthyHarbor) July 18, 2013
Relating to that pic I just RT'd....remember they want to make the Harbor swimmable by 2020. #goodluckwiththat— Joce Sterman (@jocefromABC2) July 18, 2013