John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The massive bloom floating in the Atlantic seemingly exploded out of nowhere.
This summer, the Jersey Shore has been visited by an oddly colored, gel-streaked presence. And—heyooo—we're not just talking about Pauly D. No, it's a giant blob of algae that exploded out of nowhere, overrunning a portion of the Atlantic so vast that its sliminess is visible from space.
During the warmer months, the state's government keeps a close watch on algae, as some kinds can be toxic to swimmers and marine life. On June 30, a surveillance aircraft flying near the coastline noticed nothing much save for a few schools of dolphins and fish. The next day, another flight recorded similarly unremarkable waters, though it also registered a rise in chlorophyll levels.
Then, on July 2, NASA's Terra satellite caught the sudden emergence of a "massive bloom" of phytoplankton, swirling like pearlblue ectoplasm from Sandy Hook all the way down to Atlantic City. The huge bio-slick immediately concerned the authorities because, as NASA writes:
Several species of tiny chlorophyll-containing organisms (phytoplankton) live off the New Jersey shore year-round, but only occasionally create large blooms. Under normal conditions, these microscopic plants are beneficial and form the base of the marine food chain, and thus promote healthy harvest of fish and shellfish. At times, however, some blooms may contain harmful toxins, which may harm swimmers or shellfish. Bivalves, such as clams, oysters and mussels, can accumulate such toxins, and become unhealthful to eat.
However, responders sampled the gelatinous mega-glob and determined it was mostly Heterosigma akashiwo, a type of algae they considered not-toxic enough to cause alarm. Akashiwo is this guy, for the record:
One of the last major algae attacks to hit this area was in 2011, when a bloom almost as large as New Jersey itself had people worrying about "brown foam covering their bodies as they get out of the surf." That slippery efflorescence was initially caused by winds pushing nutrients to the surface, then later fed by rains that washed nourishing sludge from sewers into the ocean. Here's what that looked like: