Nature Notes: Mother Nature’s Revenge

Life as we know it got going early

From long before our kindergarten years, the one thing that we all know for certain is that there is life on Earth, and we are immersed in it. In fact, according to the latest findings by scientists examining four-billion-year-old rocks on the shores of Hudson Bay, spiral-tubular minuscule life forms, early bacteria, have been around that long or longer.

The Earth itself is believed to be about 4.5 billion years old, in other words, life as we know it got going early. These first bacteria fed on iron. They were what biologists called anaerobic; they did not need oxygen to carry on metabolism, grow, and reproduce. It was another billion years or so before the first photosynthetic organisms came along and they were very much like what we call blue-green algae today. 

We really should be calling them cyanophytes, bacteria that have chlorophyll with which to make sugars and starches from carbon dioxide and water, a waste product of which is oxygen. True algae have nuclei with chromosomes and their chlorophyll is bound up in chloroplasts, organelles that were once living organisms and which were incorporated into early plants cells for reproduction and photosynthesis.

When the Earth was born along with the other planets, there was very little oxygen to be found. In fact oxygen is toxic to many bacteria that metabolize iron and other primitive elements. The cyanobacteria bridged the gap between the anaerobes and true plants. They manufactured oxygen as a waste product, so that aerobes like you and me ultimately developed following a long line of this and thats. We would not be here if it were not for those first cyanophytes and the photosynthetic plants that followed in their footsteps.

But having gotten us started, now those cyanobacteria are warring against us. The modern ones secrete a variety of poisons and other chemicals that can kill us and other members of the animal kingdom or make us very sick. The dog that died after drinking the befouled water in Georgica Pond a few years back may have presaged the coming of a horrible set of circumstances that could rival the Middle Ages’ bubonic plague and other historic scourges.

For the past 15 years or so, blue-green algae “blooms” in freshwater and brackish ponds, both locally and around the globe, have been increasing in intensity and duration. They may be abetted by global warming, but their chief growth stimulus is nitrates from waste products that we and all the other aerobic organisms have been willy-nilly disposing of in water, on the ground, under the ground, and into the atmosphere.

You may have seen the metallic blue-green waters of many Florida harbors and creeks on TV. There, a combination of effluents and tropical heat have sent the local cyanophytes into a frenzy of growth and reproduction. And it is happening all over. Here on Long Island, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which started looking at this problem seriously back in the first years of the new millennium, has documented many ponds that have developed serious blue-green algae problems: Lake Ronkonkoma, Georgica Pond, Lake Agawam, Mill Pond, and Hook Pond among them. This past summer, Wainscott Pond, Kellis Pond, and Wickapogue Pond joined the ranks of the damned.

As Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University has shown in the last few years, just about every tributary and ditch running into Shinnecock Bay, including such longstanding polluted ones as Weesuck Creek in East Quogue, has serious blue-green algae problems. There is a train of nitrate-laden groundwater as wide as the length of Long Island running from the Island’s central highlands south into the ocean. It is a slow train — it only travels a foot a day or so — and as it proceeds down the gradient toward the ocean it becomes richer and richer in polluting nitrogenous products and other nasties.

In the long run, landlocked ponds such as Penny Pond in Hampton Bays, Little Fresh Pond in North Sea, Slate Pond in Bridgehampton, Fort Pond in Montauk, Round Pond in Sag Harbor, Upper Seven Ponds in Water Mill, and Chatfield’s Hole in East Hampton do not have a chance. The only thing that could save such a pond is being in an area surrounded by permanent open space, as is the case with Fresh Pond in Hither Woods. 

Little Fresh Pond in North Sea is one of 20 or more ponds on the South Fork that have been given an “impaired” rating by the D.E.C. Impaired means that it is not pristine like Fresh Pond in Hither Hills, not quite as bad off as Agawam Pond in Southampton Village or Mill Pond in Water Mill, which may be beyond the point of return. Kellis Pond across from the Bridgehampton Commons between Montauk Highway and Mecox Bay is halfway between “impaired” and runaway polluted.

Some scientists are presently studying a possible causal relationship between blue-green algae and Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, cases of which have been increasing in number over the past 20 years. The potential multiple impacts, both direct and indirect, on the health of humans and other vertebrates by blue-green algae are finally drawing increased medical attention and scientific research.

Last week seven planets that revolve around a sun smaller than ours named Trappist-1 have caused a stir in astronomy circles as they may have atmospheres and water of the kind that might support life. They are to be studied in great detail in coming years. But there is a catch: They are 30 light-years away. A light-year is the distance a beam of light travels in a year. At the rate of 186,000 miles per second that adds up to a very, very, very, very long time!


Larry Penny can be reached via email at