How climate change will affect the quality of our water

Fertilizer, poop, and loads of rain.

Last year, slimy green and foul-smelling algae took over Florida’s beaches, releasing toxins that killed fish and shellfish and sickened people. The algal bloom prompted the Florida governor to declare a state of emergency and likely caused widespread economic damage. If climate change goes unchecked, we could see more of these algal blooms along our coasts and in lakes, according to new research. That means that climate change won’t just affect the quantity of our water supply — causing drought, for instance — but it will also affect its quality.

A study published today in Science shows that, in the future, more rain and more extreme storms will wash out increasing amounts of nutrients like nitrogen into rivers and coastal waters. Nitrogen is food for tiny algae, called phytoplankton — and when it’s washed ashore, it can feed algal blooms like the ones in Florida. (Warming ocean waters are also to blame.) Using several climate models and projections, researchers showed that nitrogen runoff could increase by nearly 20 percent in the continental US by the end of the century — with the upper Mississippi Atchafalaya River Basin and the Great Lakes seeing the largest increases.

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