Nature Notes: Is It Armageddon?

The seas are turning red, not with blood, but with red tide phytoplankton

    “The seas will turn red,” it prophesizes in the Bible, having to do with the anticipated Armageddon. The seas are turning red, not with blood, but with red tide phytoplankton. They’re also turning brown, purple, all of the colors in the spectrum except green for the same reason. And it all has to do with more and more nitrogen products entering the seawater with each passing day. Seven billion-plus humans, more than half of whom live only a few miles from any one of the four world oceans, produce an awful lot of nitrogen compounds as waste products. Those wastes eventually reach the water.

    There are nitrogen compounds in the air; some of ours come all the way from China. When it rains, nitrogen compounds get into the water either directly or indirectly. Mammals excrete urea, birds and reptiles excrete uric acid, even fish and marine organisms excrete nitrogenous wastes.

    The earth’s atmosphere is 80 percent nitrogen gas. Nitrogen is as important as oxygen and carbon dioxide for growing protoplasm, the stuff of life. Amino acids contain nitrogen atoms. They are turned into proteins. If we tried to live on a diet without proteins we would first become weak and flabby, then we would die an agonizing death.

    In the cities and other densely populated communities, when we urinate, the urine goes down a hole into a series of pipes and tubes, and eventually through an outfall pipe into the nearest large body of water, in the case of New York City, into the Atlantic Ocean. In Albany, it first goes into the Hudson River, then into the ocean. They call the oceans “sinks” because eventually everything runs into them.

    Phytoplankton are single-celled organisms that make up the bottom layer of the marine food chain. They are made from proteins. When each divides into two daughter cells — yes, blame it on the women — the population doubles. The more nitrogen in the water, the faster they double. Dividing at a rate of every 24 hours, one phytoplankton, say, a diatom, becomes a population of 1,024 diatoms after 10 days, and if none are eaten, more than a half a million after 20 days. Even if half are eaten by zooplankton and filter-feeding shellfish and finfish, a quarter million are left to continue to multiply at the same daily doubling rate.

    Many of the phytoplankton that produce colorful tides also synthesize poisons. When they are consumed in large quantities by higher forms of sea life, that sea life can get very sick and even die. The same can be said for the highest form of life, us. If we eat mussels or clams that have been feeding on poisonous phytoplankton, we can die. Paralytic shellfish poison from eating shellfish that have been feeding on poisonous phytoplankton can be fatal to humans. That is why many coastal states such as California, where red tide is common, have signs posted telling humans not to eat mussels harvested from their waters.

    An even more profound problem arises when the phytoplankton, as was the case of the brown tide organisms in our local waters in the mid-1980s, become so numerous that they remove all of the oxygen from the water. Then they die, too, but take fish and other marine creatures with them. When the phytoplankton crop dies en masse, any oxygen left in the water is removed by the breakdown of the dead plankton cells into molecules of detritus.

    An overabundance of nitrates in the water leads to a different kind of calamity. Eelgrass is a flowering plant, not a seaweed, that grows on the bottom of shallow estuarine bodies. Eelgrass meadows are the best of all sea bottom habitat types, utilized by a host of different fishes, including winter flounder and other important marine organisms, for spawning. It is a favorite food of many waterfowl, including goldeneye, brant, and Canada geese.

    But it has a peculiar weakness for nitrogenous nutrients. It can’t stop itself from overindulging. It takes them up day and night until it runs out of carbohydrates to burn and literally dwindles down to nothing. That is most likely the reason for the disappearance of the major eelgrass bed in Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton. For year after year it thrived just off the Springy Banks shore, marking of the edge of the harbor’s southwestern part. Then all of a sudden a few years ago, it disappeared in a matter of a few weeks.

    Springy Banks, as the name implies, is always weeping groundwater out onto the shore and into the shallows seaward of it. It provided freshwater from spring holes for local Indians prior to occupation by settlers from Europe. When the town’s Natural Resources Department sampled the water oozing up along that shore in the late 1980s it was found to be contaminated with fecal coliforms and rich in nitrogenous wastes. Why? Houses with conventional septic systems lined the banks. The increase over the years from more and bigger houses and their summer occupancies produced more and more urine. The eelgrass most likely ate themselves to death.

    A son of mine recently moved from Los Angeles to Nevada City in northeast California, not too far from Lake Tahoe and the Nevada state border. His new county, Nevada County, mandates septic systems and septic fields that remove nitrogen products from the waste stream. A day-and-night monitoring system hooked into the county’s Health Department by telephone lets the county know if something is amiss. It cost about $30,000 to purchase and install. It’s been working for more than a year now and is still turning out almost nitrogen-less wastewater. Not a bad investment, some garages here cost that much.

    What to do, what to do? Anthony Towhill, a land use attorney from Riverhead, once said at a Sag Harbor Village meeting that we were being Della Femina-ized, alluding to the large impact one individual had on the South Fork in a short span of time. Right now we are being Farrell-ized at a great pace which has a different impact. Lots of big McMansions spring up here and there, each with a conventional septic system, each with more than one bathroom and lots of capacity for accommodating humans and their guests during high times in the Hamptons, mostly in the summer.

    Conventional septic systems involve massive concrete rings placed underground (out of sight!) fed by a septic tank settling out solids and receiving human waste products, gray water from washing, etc., and anything else the homeowner or renter wants to put down the drain. The wastewater percolating out through the holes of the concrete rings leaches down and eventually makes its way into the groundwater, the freshwater aquifer, as it were, from which we derive all of our drinking water.

    Here on the South Fork, we are surrounded by lapping waters. All groundwater eventually leads to the seas. New houses, especially those monstrous ones should have septic systems that remove nitrogen and other harmful chemicals or are hooked up to community treatment facilities or septic treatment plants prior to any wastewater entering the ground.

    Larry Penny can be reached via email at